The Epistle of James is not one in which the doctrines of grace are developed, although sovereign grace is clearly recognised; chap, 1:18. These doctrines are presented to us under the form of the work of God in us, not under that of redemption through the precious blood of Christ, which is His work for us. It is a practical epistle—the holy girdle for our loins, in order that the external practical life should correspond with the inner divine life of the Christian, and that the will of God should be for us a law of liberty. Redemption is not spoken of in this epistle, neither is faith, as the means of participation in the fruit of this accomplished redemption. But since many had already made profession of the name of Christ, the writer desires that the reality of this profession should be manifested by works, the sole witness to others that true faith is working in the heart; for faith works by love; Gal. 5:6. James sets forth the true character of this new creation, and the way in which it is manifested in practical life, so that others are able to see it.
James remained at Jerusalem to tend the flock which was found there—more especially the Jewish portion of the church. We find him in the history of the gospel, but always as presiding over the Jewish flock, and that before it had become distinct from the Jewish nation. In the Epistle to the Hebrews the Spirit of God exhorts them to go forth without the camp, that is to say, to separate themselves from the unbelieving Jews; Heb. 13. Up to that time they had remained together, and Christians offered sacrifices according to the law. There were also many priests who were obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7)—a thing incredible to us, but the fact is clearly proved by the word. Moreover they were still all zealous for the law.
Let us trace the history of James as we find it in the Acts. But first we get him specially mentioned in Galatians 1:19, as having been seen by Paul, who, at that time, with the exception of Peter, had not seen the other apostles. Then we find him in Acts 15, presiding if we can so say, in the assembly of the apostles and elders, for deciding whether the Gentiles ought to be subjected to the law of Moses. His decision is final, though Peter and Paul as well as the other apostles were present, with the exception of James, the brother of John whom Herod had slain.
The decrees ordained by the apostles and elders were a testimony from the Jewish church. God had not allowed Paul and Barnabas to decide the question at Antioch: such a decision would not have ended the controversy; it would have made two assemblies. But the moment the Jewish Christians and the assembly at Jerusalem allowed liberty to the Gentiles, none could oppose themselves to their deliverance from the law. It was not a point determined by the apostles in virtue of their apostolic authority, although that authority confirmed the decree. They disputed much in the assembly. The decision is afterwards sent in the name of the apostles, the elders, and the whole church. Judaism had allowed to the Gentiles liberty from the Jewish yoke.
Here again we find James. He ended the discussion by saying, “Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God.” It is not certain that he was an apostle. Probably he was not. He was at the head of the Jewish church at Jerusalem. For this reason the angel of the Lord, when he had brought Peter out of prison, restoring him to liberty, says, “Go and shew these things to James and to the brethren,” Acts 12:17. Again, at Antioch, “before that certain came from James, Peter ate with the Gentiles, but after they were come, he withdrew and separated himself,” Gal. 2:12. We see how James is linked in the minds of the Christians, including Peter, although an apostle, with the Jewish feeling that still held sway in the hearts of the Jewish Christians, especially at Jerusalem.
Again, when Paul went up to Jerusalem for the last time, “he went in,” it is said, “with us to James, and all the elders were present,” Acts 21:18. James was evidently at the head of the assembly at Jerusalem, and expressed in his own person the strength of that principle of Judaism, which still reigned in the church at Jerusalem, God bearing with it in His patience. They believed in Jesus, they broke bread at home, but they were all zealous for the law. They offered sacrifices in the temple, and even persuaded Paul to do the same (Acts 21), and they were in no respect separated from the nation. All this is forbidden in the Epistle to the Hebrews, but it was practised up to the last days of Judaism.
This principle reappears in the Epistle of James—a true presentation of the state of the Jewish Christians, James himself being in his own person its representative and embodiment. As long as God bore with the system, the Spirit of God could work in it. We learn from profane history that James was killed by the Jews amongst whom he bore the name of “the just”; and Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us, that for this crime Jerusalem was destroyed. After the destruction of Jerusalem the system disappeared. We can well believe that the true Christians acted upon the testimony given in the Epistle to the Hebrews. However that may be, there remained only one or perhaps two small heretical sects, who held formally to Judaism, and they also soon vanished. They were called the Nazarenes and the Ebionites. But we need not occupy ourselves with these things.
The position of James, and the state of the assembly at Jerusalem (that is to say, of the Christians who were externally linked with the unbelieving Jews, although they might break bread and worship apart), makes it easier to understand this epistle. It is no question of its divine inspiration, but of its character. God in His goodness has given us all the forms with which Christianity has been clothed, and among others this first Jewish form, when the Christians had not yet separated themselves from the nation.
We do not, therefore, here find the mysteries of the counsels of God, as in Paul; nor redemption as set forth in his writings, and in those of Peter; nor the divine life of the Son of God, in Him and then in us, as we find it described in the writings of the apostle John; but his subject is the practical life of the poor of the flock, who still frequented the synagogue, and denunciations against the rich unbelievers who oppressed the poor, and blasphemed the name of the Lord.
The epistle is addressed to the twelve tribes. The nation is not yet looked upon as finally rejected of God.
James writes to the dispersion, that is to say, to the Israelites dispersed everywhere in the midst of the Gentiles. Faith recognised the entire nation, as did Elijah in 1 Kings 18:31, and as did Paul in Acts 26:7. Faith recognised it, until the judgment of God was accomplished. In order to understand the counsels, the purposes of God, His assembly, the glory of Christ, and our place now in Christ, and hereafter with Him, we must read the writings of Paul.
The patience of God with His ancient people is here shewn, although James warns them that the Judge is before the door. He carefully distinguishes the believers (chap. 2:1), though not yet separated from the people. Their privileges are not found in this epistle; they could not enjoy them in company with the unbelieving Jews; but he could point out to them— though in the midst of such—the difference of the Christian life, and it is of this James speaks.
He does not style himself an apostle; yet he was in a practical manner—not as an ordained elder, but from his personal influence, at the head of those Christians who were not separated from Judaism. He always thinks of Christians, and of the walk which became them in the midst of the nation. Peter, who wrote to a part of the Jewish dispersion, does not speak of the Jews, but calls the believers the nation, and addresses them as in the midst of the Gentiles (1 Pet. 2:10-12); but by James the Christian walk is described in terms which seldom go beyond what ought to have been found in a man of faith under the old covenant.
We see that he has Christians in his mind, but Christians who are on the lowest step of the ladder which reaches towards heaven. Yet, since in point of fact, we are upon the earth, this epistle is most useful, as pointing out the walk and the spirit which become us, however great our heavenly privileges may be. Although the light of our hearts is there above, a lantern for our feet is not to be despised, and it is all the more valuable, because we are in the midst of a Christian profession— of people who say they are believers. The epistle puts the truth of this profession to the proof. Whatever may have been the connection of the believers with the people, the writer of our epistle supposes faith in those to whom it is addressed—a faith which perhaps might have been practically found in a Jew before he believed in Jesus—therefore, with the addition of this belief, a true faith which had been produced by the word of God in the heart. As Paul himself, coming down from the height of the revelations granted him by God, recognises the faith of Lois and Eunice, and likens the faith of Timothy to that of these women.
Let us now examine the epistle itself. At its very commencement, temptations, the discipline of God in favour of the believer, are the test of faith; chap, 1:2-12.
As to their position, they were associated with the people; the state of things which the writer has before his mind is a profession of the faith and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. We shall see that he addresses others with whom they were found linked, and warns believers against the spirit in which such walked.
The Jewish Christians were tried and persecuted. Peter also speaks of this in his epistle, encouraging them to suffer with patience. James exhorts them, as Paul also had done in Romans 5, to esteem persecution as all joy, and for the same reason that Paul had given. The trial of faith works patience; the will of man is broken; he has to wait for the operation of God; he feels his dependence on God, and that he lives in a scene where God alone can produce the result desired, overcoming and arresting the power of Satan. Often we may wish when occupied with good, that the work should be hastened, that difficulties should disappear, and that we should be freed from persecution; but the will of God—not ours—is good and wise: the works that are done upon the earth, He does them Himself. Patience is the perfect fruit of obedience.
See what is said in Colossians 1:11: “Strengthened with all might, according to the power of his glory”—what mighty deeds should not such strength produce!— “unto all patience and longsuffering, with joyfulness.” All might, according to the power of His glory, is needed to enable us to bear everything without murmuring, and even with joy, since all comes from the hand of God. It is His will, not our own, which sustains the heart. When Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12:12, gives us the signs of an apostle, the first is patience with all longsuffering. Paul also gives us the key to this apparent contradiction: “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God; and not only so, but we glory in tribulations also, knowing that tribulation worketh patience, and patience experience, and experience hope, and hope maketh not ashamed, because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us,” Rom. 5:3-5.
When the love of God is known, and the will broken, there is confidence in God. We know that all comes from Him, and that He makes all work together for our greatest blessing. Thus the trying of our faith works patience. But patience must have her perfect work: otherwise the will revives, also confidence in self, instead of having it in God. We act without God, and apart from His will, we do not wait upon Him, or in any case impatience and the flesh shew themselves in us. Job was subject for a long time, but patience did not have her perfect work. Saul waited long for Samuel, but he could rft>t wait quietly till Samuel came, and he lost the kingdom. He did not wait for the Lord, conscious that he could do nothing of his own will, and apart from God: patience had not her perfect work.
Now affliction, the dealing of God which acts for us externally, and inwardly too, by His grace, puts patience to the proof; and when this work is accomplished and we are wholly subject to God, desiring nothing apart from His will, we are perfect and entire, lacking nothing. Not that we have nothing to learn as to acquaintance with His will; we find the contrary in verse 5, which follows; but the state of soul is perfect, as to the will, as to our relations with God; and He can reveal His will to us, for it is the only thing we desire. See 1 Peter 1:6, 7.
Patience had her perfect work in the Lord. He felt deeply the affliction He passed through in this world, and felt it more than we do.
He could weep over Jerusalem, and at the sight of the power of death over the hearts of men. The refusal of His love was a perpetual source of grief to Him. He upbraided the cities in which most of His mighty works were done, but He is perfect in His patience, and in that hour He said, “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them unto babes,” Matt. 11. He gives thanks at the same moment that He upbraids. We see the same thing in John 12. In both cases His soul, being perfectly subject to His Father’s will, expands with joy at the prospect of all that which is the result of submission.
Christ could never lack divine wisdom. But with us it is very possible that wisdom may be lacking, even when will is subject, and we truly desire to do the will of God. Therefore the promise follows, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not.” Absence of, will, obedience, and the spirit of confiding dependence which waits on God, characterise the new life. We pass through tribulation in the world; but this life develops itself in these qualities. But it is necessary this confidence should be in exercise; otherwise we can receive nothing. It does not honour God to distrust Him. Such a man is double-minded, like a wave of the sea driven by the wind. He is unstable, because his heart is not in communion with God; he does not live in a way to know Him; such an one is, of course, unstable. If a believer keeps in the presence of God, near Him, he knows Him, and will understand His will; he will not have a will of his own, and will not wish to have one; not only on the ground of obedience, but because he has more confidence in the thoughts of God concerning him than he has in his own will.
Faith in the goodness of God gives courage to seek and to do His will. We have in Christ Himself a perfect and beautiful example of these principles of the divine life. Tempted by Satan, He has no will of His own; it does not stir; but He shews that man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. It is absolute and perfect obedience. The will of God is not only the rule but the sole motive for action. When the tempter desires Him to throw Himself down from the temple, to see whether God will be true to His promises, Jesus will in no way be tempted; He cannot question His faithfulness. He waits quietly for the power of God, whenever the occasion may present itself for manifesting it, in the path of His will.
Such faith and confidence are indeed a sign that the soul is near to God, living in intimacy and fellowship with Him. Such an one will be assured that God hears him. This is what forms the soul in the difficulties and trials of this present life, so that it can be said, “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation.”
Verses 9-11 are parenthetical.” The new man belongs to the new creation; he is its first-fruits, but he nevertheless finds himself down here in a world, the glory of which passes away as the flower of the grass. Thus the brother of low degree is exalted to have fellowship with Christ, and to share His glory. However humble he may be, he becomes, even in this world, the companion of all the brethren. “God hath chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him.” The rich own them as brethren, and they meet together at the Lord’s table, as possessors of the same privileges. On the other hand the rich man, if he is faithful, cannot walk in worldly grandeur, in the pride and vanity of a world which has rejected the Lord. He makes himself—God has made him—the brother of the poor man who loves the Lord. They enjoy the communion of the Spirit together, and share the most precious and intimate things of life. They rejoice together; the poor man in his exaltation—Christ is not ashamed to call such ‘brethren’—and the rich man glories in that title much more than in all those that belong to him in the world. That title is despised in the world, and counted for nothing; but he knows that the glory of this world passes away as the flower of the grass, and he rejoices in being the companion of those whom the Lord of glory owns as His. The world will pass away, and the spirit of the world is already passed from the heart of the spiritual Christian. He who takes the lowest place shall be great in the kingdom of God.
All this is very far removed from the spirit of envy and jealousy, which would like to pull down all that is above it. It is not selfishness, but the Spirit of love, which comes down to walk with the lowly, who are not little in the sight of God; like Christ, who indeed had the right to reign, and to be first, but who came down, in order to be with us, and made Himself a servant in the midst of His disciples. For us the glory of this world is only vanity and deceit. Love likes to serve, selfishness to be served.
The apostle returns to the character of the new man, for whom life down here is a test. He is blessed when he passes through temptations, and bears them with patience. This is the normal state of the Christian; 1 Pet. 4:12. The desert is his pathway, his calling is patience here and glory hereafter. Tested here, through grace he abides faithful and unmoved in temptation and trial, and afterwards he shall inherit the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him. The life that has no trials is no life, but he who is tried is blessed. The life is not down here, though it is indeed passing through the wilderness. We are on the journey, not in the rest; it is not yet the life in the rest and glory of Christ.
In order to develop this life, the affections must be set upon the promised crown and blessings. When we have the life of Christ, we need to be exercised in order that the heart may detach itself from things around, which constantly invite the attention of the flesh, and that the will may not yield. Resisting the allurements of vanity, the heart should habitually keep itself by grace in the way of holiness, and in the enjoyment of heavenly things in communion with God. Now trials borne with patience help greatly to this result. A heart weaned from vanity is an immense gain to the soul. If the world is dry and arid for the heart, it more readily turns to the fountain of living waters.
There is, however, a second meaning to the word “temptation.” Though it often signifies trial from outward circumstances, it is also employed for another sort of trial—that which comes from within, the temptation from lust, which is entirely different. God can try us externally, in order to bless us, and He does so. He tried Abraham, but He cannot in any way tempt by lust. When it is a question, not of putting obedience and patience to the test, but of sin, the condition of the soul is dealt with, for its correction and advancement. But as regards the calling forth of lust, it cannot be said that God tempts. “God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man, but every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.”
Christ Himself was tested of God throughout His whole life, and nothing but a sweet savour came forth. Always perfect in obedience, having come to do His Father’s will, He yet learned obedience in this world of sin and enmity against God. Satan desired to rouse self-will in Him, but in vain. He was indeed led of the Spirit to be tempted of the devil, but that He might overcome him for us, who, through sin, are subject to his power.
No lust was found in Him; but He was capable of being hungry, and He suffered hunger. He had been declared by the Father’s voice to be the Son of God, and Satan desired that He should leave the place of servant, which He had taken in becoming man, and do His own will: therefore he suggests to Him to make bread of the stones. Here we have a temptation of the enemy; but the Lord abides in His perfection; He would live by the word which proceeded from the mouth of God. God put Him to the proof through suffering, but no lust was found in Him; and when Satan would make use of hunger—which is a human need apart from sin, and was found in Christ as a man—He remained in perfect obedience, and had no other motive for action than His Father’s will.
With us there are temptations springing from the inner man, from lust, altogether different from the trials coming from without, which test the state of the heart, detecting self-will, if we are not perfectly subject to the will of God, or if we are actuated by other motives besides His will.
Now James is always practical. He does not search out the root of everything in the heart, as Paul does; he takes lust as the source which produces actual sin. Paul shews that the sinful nature is the source of lust—an important distinction, which also illustrates the difference between the two writers, or the object of the Holy Ghost in the Epistle of James, namely, the outward practical life, as the evidence of the character of that life, which owes its origin to the word of God, that had wrought through faith. With James, lust—the first movement of the sinful nature which discloses its real character—having conceived, brings forth sin, and sin being finished, brings forth death. It is the history of the workings of the evil nature. James is occupied with its effects, Paul with its source, in order that we may know ourselves; Rom. 8:8.
Then in opposition to lust, and shewing the action of God, which is not to tempt, but, on the contrary, to produce good, James tells us that “every good and perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures,” v. 17, 18. As I have said, he owns grace as the sole and divine source of the good that is in us, as born of God, and that through faith, since it is by the word of truth. By it we are born again; it is a new life, and that by the will of God. We belong to the new creation; we are its first-fruits. Immense blessing! which belongs not only to a new position, though it is that, but also to a new nature which makes us capable of enjoying God. James does not speak of righteousness through grace, but of an entirely new nature, which comes from God.
Thus, self-will being broken, and self-confidence destroyed, he exhorts us, as those who receive all from grace, to be willing to hear rather than to speak, to be slow to wrath, which is but the impatience of the old man, for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. He who is talight of God is subject to Him. He lays aside all filthiness and superfluity of nalightiness, and receives with meekness the ingrafted word. This is an important passage, for it presents the condition of the man of God, and that which acts upon him. The will of the flesh does not act in him, nor does self-will; he hearkens to what God says, he receives His work with meekness, and is subject to it. Then God engrafts the word in his heart. It is not knowledge merely, but the truth of God, His word which is able to save the soul. It is both the seed of-the divine life, and that which forms it.
The sanctifying word is ingrafted in him; the graft is introduced there by God, the new man which brings forth the desired fruit. But this life must be expressed in practice. A man must be a doer of the word, not a hearer only; otherwise, there is no longer reality, but he is like a man beholding his natural face in a glass; he goes away and all disappears, all is forgotten. “But he that looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein—he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the word—this man is blessed in his deed.”
We find here an important expression— “The law of liberty.” If I tell my child to remain in the house when he wishes to go out, he may obey; but it is not a law of liberty to him; he restrains his will. But if I afterwards say, Now go where you wish to go; he obeys, and it is a law of liberty, because his will and the command are the same; they run together.
The will of God was for Jesus a law of liberty. He came to do His Father’s will, He desired nothing else. Blessed state! It was perfection in Him, a blessed example for us. The law is a law of liberty when the will, the heart of man, coincides perfectly in desire with the law imposed upon him— imposed in our case by God—the law written in the heart. It is thus with the new man as with the heart of Christ. He loves obedience, and loves the will of God because it is His will, and as having a nature which answers to what His will expresses, since we partake of the divine nature; in fact it loves that which God wills.
Verses 26, 27. But there is an index to what is found in the heart, which, more than any other, betrays what is within. This index is the tongue. He who knows how to govern his tongue is a perfect man, and able to bridle the whole body. The appearance of religion is vain if the tongue be not bridled; such a man deceives his own heart.
True religion is shewn by love in the heart, and by purity— keeping himself unspotted from the world. It thinks of others, for those who are in distress, in need of protection, and the help and support of love, as widows and orphans. The truly religious heart, full of the love of God, and moved by Him, thinks, as God does, upon sorrow, weakness, and need. It is the true Christian character.
The second mark of Christian life, given by James, is to be unspotted from the world. The world is corrupt, it lies in sin, it has rejected the Saviour—God come in grace. It is not only that man has been cast out of Eden because he was a sinner—which is true, and suffices for his condemnation— but there is more. God has done much to reclaim him. He gave the promises to Abraham, He called Israel to be His people, He sent the prophets, and, last of all, His only Son. God Himself came in grace; but man, as far as he could do it, cast out the God who was in the world in grace. Therefore the Lord said, “Now is the judgment of this world.” The last thing God could do was to send His Son, and He has done it. “I have yet,” He said, “one Son, my well-beloved; may be they will reverence him when they see him. And they took him, and killed him, and cast him out of the vineyard.”
The world is a world which has already rejected the Son of God, and where does it find its joy? In God or in Christ? No; in the pleasures of the flesh, in grandeur, in riches; it seeks to make itself happy without God, that it may not feel its want of Him. It would not need thus to seek happiness in pleasures, if it were happy. Formed by God with a breath of life for Himself, man cannot be satisfied with anything less than God. Read the history of Cain. Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod.10 Then he built a city, and called it after the name of his son, Enoch. Afterwards, Jabal was the father of such as have cattle (the riches of that day), and his brother’s name was Jubal, the father of all such as handle the harp and organ. And Zillah bare Tubal-Cain, an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron.
We have here the world and its civilisation complete; not having God, they must make the world pleasant and beautiful. It will be said: But what is the harm of harps and organs? None, surely; the harm is in the heart of man, who uses these things to make himself happy without God, forgetting Him, flying from Him, seeking to content himself in a world of sin, and to drown the misery of this condition of alienation from God, by hiding himself in the corruption that reigns there. The elegance which man affects makes him, only too often, slip insensibly into this corruption, which he seeks to conceal with mirth.
But the new man born of God, partaking of the divine nature, cannot find its delight in the world; it shuns that which would separate it from God. Where the flesh finds its happiness and its pleasures, the spiritual life finds none. James speaks of actual corruption; but he does not speak as though one part of the world were corrupt and another pure; on the contrary, it is defiled and corrupt in its principles, and in every way. He who is conformed to it is corrupt in his walk. The friendship of the world is enmity against God. Whoever will be the friend of the world is the enemy of God. We must keep ourselves pure from the world itself. We have, indeed, to pass through it, and to be in passing through it the epistle of Christ, undefiled by the world which surrounds us, as Christ was undefiled, in the midst of a world that would not receive Him.
In chapter 2 believers are clearly distinguished; they are not to have the faith of the Lord of glory with respect of persons. To despise the poor was contrary to the law, which regarded all Israelites as objects of the favour of God, and considered the people as one before Him, each one being a member of the same family. It is also entirely contrary to the spirit of Christianity, which looks for humility, and calls the poor happy, which gives us to seek greatness in heavenly glory, shewing that the cross here answers to the glory above. Faith has seen that Lord of glory in humiliation, not having where to lay His head.
Moreover, the rich had, generally speaking, remained the adversaries of Christianity; they blasphemed that good name by which Christians were called; they drew them before the judgment-seats. God has chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which He has promised to them that love Him. Paul also gives the same testimony. Not many wise, not many mighty, not many noble, are called; 1 Cor. 1:26.
These things—riches, family, power—are claims which bind the soul to this world. Grace can indeed break these chains, but it does not often happen. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” These chains are too strong; but with God all things are possible.
James contrasts the glory of the Lord, with the false glory of man in this world; for the fashion of this world passes away. He insists much on this point, as does Peter likewise. If they made a difference in the assembly between the poor and the rich, they became judges of evil thoughts. Blessed be God, we can live together for heaven and in heavenly things, at least in the church, where true difference consists, not according to the vanity of this world, but in degrees of spirituality.
Remark here, that the assembly is called the synagogue, shewing how the mind of James ran in Jewish habits of thought.
Now the fact that a difference was made between the rich and the poor, by which they were convinced of the law as transgressors, leads James to speak of the law. He speaks of three laws: the law of liberty, of which we have spoken; the royal law; and the law in its usual sense. The royal law is, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” He who does it does well. Then he adds a very important principle— that, if we have kept the whole law, and yet have failed in one point, we are guilty of all. The reason of this is simple. When lust has actuated us, we have transgressed the law, and have despised the authority of Him who established it. It is not supposed that a man has broken all the commandments in detail, but He who gave the one gave all, and where the flesh and the will in concert with it has been in activity, we have followed our own will, and despised the will of God. His will has been violated.
Christianity requires that we should speak and act, as those who have been set free from the power of sin, to do the will of God in all things, His will being ours. He has delivered us from bondage; we are truly free to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Precious and holy liberty! It is the liberty of a nature that finds its pleasure and joy in the will of God and in obedience. Now the Christian is always free to do the will of God; he may, indeed, get away from God, and through carelessness and unfaithfulness, lose strength and zeal; but still, all he says and does will be judged according to this law of liberty. Important truth! He grows in the knowledge of the will of God, and he is free under grace to practise what he knows. The needed strength is found in Christ.
To this thought of judgment James adds the necessity of walking according to grace. “He shall have judgment without mercy who hath shewed no mercy.” The Lord had already established this principle, that sins should be forgiven to him who forgives. If the spirit of grace is not in the heart, we cannot be sharers in that grace which God has manifested towards man. According to the government of God, he who does not act with mercy in the details of this life may taste the severe chastisement of God; for God finds His delight in goodness and in love.
Now he insists upon works—an important part of this epistle—not that in itself it is more important than other parts, but it becomes so on account of the many reasonings of men.
The principle that love has to be shewn, not in words but in deeds, introduces the question of works. The spirit of James is practical; he is occupied with the evil produced by a profession of Christianity without a practical life in accordance with this profession; and the two principles—that love should be real, and that faith should manifest itself by the works it produces—are mingled in his observations. “If one of you say, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled, notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body, what doth it profit?” Certainly, this is not true Christian faith. Faith is a powerful principle, the result of the operation of the Holy Spirit in the heart, a spring which moves all the wheels of the heart, a principle which raises it above selfishness and all the base motives of the world, attaching its affections to Christ. Christ becomes our true motive; living in us, He is the source whence our actions flow, so that we walk as He walked. We are far behind Him indeed, but the principle of our life is the same; it is He Himself who lives in us.
It is evident then that true faith works by love, and produces good deeds: it cannot be otherwise. But we have still another principle in this passage, which is expressed in the words, “shew me.” It is clear that faith is a principle hidden in the heart, it cannot be seen; even as the root which causes the plant to grow and bring forth fruit is not seen, though it draws nourishment from the soil, as faith draws from Christ. As without the root the plant cannot bring forth fruit, so without faith good works cannot be produced. Some things outwardly good may be done without having any value. Much may be given, much may be done, without true love, without faith; but a life of love which follows Christ, and does His will, because it is His will, not seeking anything else, cannot be without faith. Now the one who claims to possess faith owns that it alone is good, or can produce what is good.
James therefore says: “Shew me thy faith without works.” But this is impossible. It is plain that it is a hidden principle in the heart, a simple profession without any reality: yet we need not always connect this with hypocrisy, because education, the influences which surround us, and external evidence, may produce as a habit of mind belief in Christianity, and its fundamental doctrines. But in such faith there is no link with Christ, no source of eternal life. A man may not be openly unbelieving, he honours the name of Christ, but such faith produces nothing in the heart: Christ cannot trust it. See John 2:23-25.
When true faith, the effect of grace by the action of the Holy Spirit, is produced in the heart, there is felt at once a personal need of Christ, of possessing Him for oneself, of hearing His voice. We find this in the case of Nicodemus. He goes in search of Christ; and, mark well, he quickly feels that the world is against him, and so he goes by night.
Now, as true faith cannot be seen, he who claims to possess it, has nothing to reply to him who says, “Shew me thy faith.” But he who has genuine works of love cannot have them without faith, which is the divine motive power of -Christian life in the heart, working patience, purity, love, and separation from the world, whilst walking through it. We cannot move without a spring. The faith which truly looks to Christ, and finds all in Him, manifests itself in this life, which is the life of faith.
It is a question of shewing faith, and to whom? To God? No surely. It is “shew me,” that is, man who cannot see the heart as God sees it. The whole reasoning of James, all its force and meaning, is in this word, “Shew me.” He does not speak to us of peace of conscience, being justified by faith because the Lord, the beloved and precious Saviour, has borne our sins, being given for our offences. Faith believes in the efficacy of the work of Christ, it knows that God has received it, has accepted it as a perfect satisfaction for the sins of believers, a work which will never lose its value in the sight of God, there where Christ is gone in, not without blood, that is to say, His own blood, where He always appears in the presence of God for us, set down at His right hand, because the whole work as regards our sins was finished upon the cross, according to the glory of God.
Here, on the contrary, James speaks of vain and empty faith, of the profession of the name of Christ, of calling oneself a Christian, without having Christ in the heart: true faith shews itself by works, by fruit. It is seen from the fruit that the tree lives, that the root which draws its nourishment from Christ is there. The justification of the profession is made before men, to whom it must be shewn, by means of the fruits which are produced. When we closely examine the examples here given, we shall see plainly, that it is a question of the proofs of faith, not of good works in the ordinary sense of the term. Here faith is shewn by works in the same persons as those instanced by the apostle Paul: by the act of Abraham, who was ready to sacrifice his only and beloved son, when God required it of him; and by that of Rahab, who hid the spies and sent them away in peace, a witness of her faith. There can be nothing stronger than these instances. Not only was Isaac an only son, but in him all the promises of God were established, so that absolute confidence in God was called for. See Heb. 11:17-19. Humanly, there is nothing good in slaying a son. In like manner Rahab was a traitress, unfaithful to her country, if we think of her act as a natural one. But she linked herself with the people of God, when His enemies were in full power, and when His people had not as yet gained a single victory, or so much as passed the Jordan.
Such is faith, which confides in God at whatever cost, and links itself with His people, when all is against them. Abraham’s faith was simply faith in God and His word; but it was manifested absolutely, and without hesitation, when he offered up his beloved son, in whom all the promises were established. The faith of Rahab was also a simple faith in God, but it was displayed when she linked herself to the cause of God, when all the power was apparently on the other side: for God does not make Himself visible. In fact to call oneself a believer and to produce nothing, is not really faith. Faith realises its object, and the object produces its effect as a motive in the heart.
He who receives the word, is born again of incorruptible seed, is a partaker of the divine nature, and obedience, purity and love are reproduced. We have, it is true, still to overcome temptations and difficulties; we are not what we wish to be, nor even what we might be: still, more or less, the life does produce its fruits. And though the heart may through carelessness be sometimes unfaithful in the path, faith, nevertheless, always produces its own proper fruits. The Christian well knows, that the faith which produces nothing, is not true faith. Faith realises the presence and the love of God known in the new nature—it enjoys both, and reflects, though feebly, the character of Him in whom it inwardly delights. We are children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.
It is from faith, though it be human faith, and not that of the inner divine life, that everything is done, that does not find its motive in the purely animal instincts of our nature. Why does the husbandman sow his seed? Because he believes it will produce a harvest: it is thus as to everything except eating and drinking. In order to have divine faith, it is needful that the things of God should be revealed to the soul; this is the work of the Spirit of God. Faith in God is that which is acceptable to God: but such faith, we being quickened of God through His word, brings forth the fruits of divine life.
By means of this faith, we have fellowship with God, with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and He is not ashamed to call us His friends (John 15:15); as Abraham was called the friend of God. In business with the world, we say what has to be said of the matter in hand, as courteously as we can; but this said, there is an end of it. With a friend, we open our minds, we speak of things that have no connection with business, of all that is in our hearts. God was not talking with Abraham of the promises made to himself, when he was called the friend of God; but He was telling him all His intentions as to the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him.” It is beautiful to see the intimacy of communion with God, when the walk is in faithfulness before Him. See Gen. 18:17-20.
The believer who was in Sodom was saved, though with the loss of everything; and he lived in disquietude and trouble, fearing the mountain where Abraham was (for the place of faith is always terrible to unbelief), fearing Zoar after he had seen the terrible overthrow of the other cities, and finally fleeing to the mountain of which he had been previously afraid, and living there in misery and shame.
We have in Abraham the picture of a believer who lives by faith; in Lot, that of a believer who takes the world, beautiful to the outward eye, for his dwelling-place: he inherits judgment, though he was saved; whilst as for Abraham, after that Lot was separated from him, God told him to lift up his eyes and behold all the land of promise, to realise its extent and to know that all was his.
Faith gives fellowship with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ; the participation and reahsation of all that belongs to us. It is not to be wondered at, if this faith produces fruit according to God. God grant that we may live so close to Himself, that unseen things may act upon our hearts, and that we may go on in patience and with joy until the Lord come, who will introduce us there where we shall need faith no longer, but shall be in the full enjoyment of that which faith had believed, when the things themselves were not seen.
James would have humility in speaking, and that we should not be many teachers. When we do not know ourselves, it is far easier to teach others than to govern self. Now the tongue is the most direct index of what is in the heart. We all fail in many things and if we assume to teach others, our offences are the more serious, and all the more deserve condemnation. Humility in the heart makes a man slow to speak: he waits rather to be talight, and for others to express their thoughts; he is more ready to learn than to teach.
With this exhortation, James begins an important dissertation on the dangers of the tongue. No one can tame it, it is in fact as I have said, the most immediate index to the heart. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” Many people do more with the tongue by hard speeches, than they would do with the hand. Besides, light and empty words are often spoken.
James always desires that the will should be bridled, that we should not be self-confident, and that the lightness of the flesh should be held in check by the fear of God. And first, he would not have the Christian lightly put himself forward to teach, nor that there should be many teachers, knowing they would receive the greater condemnation. Love prompts to build up the brethren, and the Spirit leads the lowly in the exercise of their gifts. But it may be that a Christian likes to make himself heard, that he is not lowly, that he speaks because he has confidence in himself. Now this is not brotherly love, but rather love of self.
Moreover, we all fail in many things, and if we teach others, or at least assume to do so, we are clearly more responsible and our faults become more serious. How teach others, when we know not how to walk in faithfulness ourselves? This is not the fear of God. If the conscience is not good before Him, we cannot possibly set forth His grace and truth in His power, for we are not in His presence and He is not with us. The first effect of His presence would be to arouse the conscience. He who teaches ought to maintain true and deep humility, and to watch that he may not stumble in his path.
Such a spirit of humility is not lack of confidence in God; it is on the contrary linked with this confidence. The humble one will not say to the Lord: I know thee that thou art a hard man. But he has no confidence in self, he speaks only when it is the will of God; then he speaks in the power of His Spirit. He is slow to speak, he waits for God, that he may do it with Him.
Some other important truths are connected with these words. And first, we all offend in many things. He who calls himself perfect deceives himself. This does not necessarily mean that we commit any scandalous offences, but we do and say what is wrong in the sight of God. Our speech is not always with grace, seasoned with salt: failure is found in it. We cannot excuse ourselves, for the Lord has said, “My grace is sufficient for thee, my strength is made perfect in weakness,” nevertheless we fail, sad as it is, and we are compelled to own it, if we are walking with God; grace will make us feel and own it, and we shall walk more closely with Him, with more watchfulness and lowliness, and in greater realised dependence upon Him.
But we find yet another truth in these words. The exhortation would not have been needful, had not the liberty to speak, when God willed it, belonged to all the brethren according to their gift, and according to the direction of the word, since such directions are found in it. If one person had been appointed to speak, such an exhortation would have been quite useless.
Thus there is a moral exhortation to humility, quietness, distrust of self, and the fear of God; for the danger of offending and our responsibility are spoken of. The passage also excludes any thought of ministry by one person only in the assembly. It is not here questioned that a single individual may exercise a ministry which God has confided to him—on the contrary, such a ministry is permitted to any to whom the Lord has imparted the needful gift—only under the direction of the word. The activity of the flesh is rebuked, and the liberty of the Holy Ghost is set forth. The Lord makes use of each one as seems good to Him; whether by those permanent gifts of teacher, pastor, and evangelist, which are to continue with us to the end, or by the ministry of each member in the place where God has set it.
Now what is said as to offending, leads to a continuation of the discourse concerning the tongue; that most direct index to the heart, which is so easily set in motion, and which follows every impulse of the heart. All things, even wild beasts and serpents, have been tamed; but the tongue can no man tame, it is full of deadly poison. This is very strong, but alas! it is very true: nevertheless, let us remember that if the flesh is practically held for dead, and we are living by the Spirit, the tongue will become the expression of His impulses, or there will be silence, because grace has nothing to say.
Many according to the flesh would avoid giving a blow, who cannot restrain a passionate or hard word against a neighbour. But if no man can restrain the tongue, the grace of Christ can do it, for the inner man on one side is under the yoke of the Lord, and is meek and lowly in heart: Christ fills the heart, and thus precisely because the tongue follows the impulses of the heart, the speech will express this meekness and lowliness. For this, it is needful that Christ alone should dwell there, and the flesh be so held in check, that when temptation comes it may not stir. It is difficult not to fail, but it is very useful to see that the tongue shews what is working within, just as the hands of a clock shew the hidden workings of its wheels.
Such is the beautiful portrait of divine wisdom. It is well to note how James always desires that self-will should be silent, in order that we may be capable of doing the will of God, and, as partakers of the divine nature, of manifesting His character—the character of Christ, God manifest in flesh. He came not to do His own will, but the will of Him that sent Him. He ever submitted Himself even to wrongs and injustice, doing good and walking in calmness and love. To do well, to suffer, and take it patiently, this (says Peter) is acceptable to God. Love is free when self is dead. We walk in peace, we make peace, and the fruits of righteousness in peace are sown for them that make peace. (It is thus I understand these few words.) “Blessed are the peace-makers; for they shall be called the children of God.” It is a reproduction, in the walk of a man, of the peace and love of God as it was manifested in Christ down here.
Having commended the spirit of peace in the Christian’s ways, James now asks, “From whence come wars and fightings among you.” But here we must inquire what is meant by “among you.” It is not necessarily among Christians. Meekness of wisdom, wisdom that is gentle and easy to be entreated, became them. But, as we have seen, they found themselves still in the midst of the twelve tribes, who are, I doubt not, included in this “among you.” And the Christians might find themselves implicated in these disputes, so that the exhortation is addressed to them also. These fightings came from their pleasures; the will was unbroken, lust distracted their hearts; they desired to have what they did not possess; conscience was silent, overpowered by lust, and the desires (unchecked by the will) gave the rein to the passions: “Ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain; ye fight and war, and yet ye have not.”
Dependence on God was forgotten; will acted for itself; they did not ask of God, or if they asked, it was but with the desire to make God Himself the servant of their pleasures. God does not respond to such prayers. Sad state of man! God was forgotten, and still worse, the heart was the slave of pleasure, and under the yoke of its passions, far from peace and quietness: war within, and open sin without, afar from God in the world—this passing scene in which such desires find their sphere—or, at least, if God was known, He was forgotten by their rebellious hearts. Therefore the friendship of the world is enmity with God. Such a Christian, conformed to the world, forgets that he is purged from his old sins. He walks in forgetfulness of God, in the path of the unbeliever, and conscience retreats driven back by lust. When he asks of God he does not receive, because he asks, as a worldling might, to spend it on his pleasures.
We need not suppose that all those whom James calls “adulterers and adulteresses” were actually such. Many were really such sinners in the world; and others, even though Christians, walked in the same spirit of unfaithfulness to God, and gave the rein to their pleasures, walking with the world. This, surely, is not the path of the Christian; but when he abandons the ways of God and finds himself mixed up with the world, he is often ashamed of his Christianity, he dares not confess the Saviour’s name. Then conscience becomes hardened, and thus he becomes like the world or worse, having overleaped every barrier. Satan rejoices then to see the name of Christ dishonoured by those who bear it.
Now a principle of great importance is found in this passage, “The friendship of the world is enmity with God; whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.” Powerful testimony! which judges the walk and searches the heart. The world’s true character has now been manifested, because it has rejected and crucified the Son of God. Man has been already tried without law, and under law, but after he had shewn himself to be wholly evil without law, and had broken the law when he had received it, then God Himself came in grace; He became man in order to bring the love of God home to the heart of man, having taken human nature. It was the final test of man’s heart. He came not to impute sin to them, but to reconcile the world to Himself. But the world would not receive Him; and it has shewn that it is under the power of Satan and of darkness. It has seen and hated both Him and His Father.
The world is ever the same world: Satan is its prince; and all that is in it, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but of the world. The heart of man, the flesh, has since the fall been always enmity against God. It is often thought and said that, since the death of Christ, Satan is no longer the prince of this world; but it was precisely then that he declared himself as its prince, leading on all men, whether Jews or Gentiles, to crucify the Saviour. And although men now bear the name of Christ, the opposition of the world to His authority remains the same.
Only observe and see if the name of Christ is not dishonoured. Man may indeed be talight to honour it, but it is none the less true that where he finds his enjoyment, where his will is free, he shuts out Christ, lest He should come in and spoil his pleasures. If left alone, he does not think of Him; he does not like to be spoken to of the Saviour, he sees no beauty in Him that he should desire Him. Man likes to do his own will, and he does not want the Lord to come and oppose it; he prefers vanity and pleasures.
We have the true history of the world and its practical principles in Cain. He had slain his brother, and was cast out of the presence of God, despairing of grace and refusing to humble himself. By the judgment of God, he was made a vagabond on the earth; but such a condition did not suit him. He settled down where God had made him a vagabond, and he called the city after the name of his son to perpetuate the greatness of his family.
That this city should be deprived of all the delights of life would have been unbearable; therefore he multiplied riches for his son. Then another member of the family invented instruments of music; another was the instructor of artificers in brass and iron. The world being cast out from God sought to make its position pleasant without God, to content itself at a distance from Him. By the coming of Christ the state of man’s heart was manifested, not only as seeking the pleasures of the flesh, but as being enmity against God. However great His goodness, it would not be disturbed in the enjoyment of the pleasures of the world, nor submit itself to the authority of another; it would have the world, for itself, fighting to obtain it, and snatching it from the hands of those who possessed it. Now it is evident that the friendship of this world is enmity with God. As far as in them lay, they cast God out of the world, and drove Him away. Man desires to be great in this world; we know that the world has crucified the Son of God, that it saw no beauty in the One in whom God finds all His delight.
The scripture says, “Does the Spirit which has taken his abode in us desire enviously?” On the contrary—and herein is found the means of overcoming it— “God giveth more grace, he resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.” This is the true secret of strength and victory, and hkewise of peace of heart, in the midst of the difficulties and contrarieties of the world.
James again insists on humility; that man’s will should be broken, and that he should be subject to God. For obedience, and having no will of one’s own, is true humility; and to this the goodness and grace of God invites man. Confidence in God leads the soul to submit itself to Him. This is both a duty and a necessity, but it is done heartily where confidence exists. It is the truth of our relationship with God, and the soul is happy. We do not need to have a will for ourselves; if God who loves us has a will for us in all things, we ought to commit ourselves to Him. What grace that the omnipotent God should be always thinking of us in all the details of our lives!
The devil is an enemy; he tries to deceive us, he lays snares, he seeks to act upon us by means of our lusts. He may also indeed raise persecution to arrest us in the path of faith, but in ordinary life he deceives us by the things that suit the flesh.
If we are persecuted, it is our glory. “To you,” says the apostle, “it is given … not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake.” But this danger from the will of Satan is constant; it is continually around us. The important thing is that, living after the new man and in communion with God, we should be able to discern the deceit of Satan, which is never obedience to the will of God. Very possible the evil may not be apparent. When Satan suggested to the Lord that He should make bread of the stones and eat-, it was not apparent evil. To eat when hungry does not seem a wicked thing; but it would not have been obedience. Satan could do nothing. To eat simply because one is hungry is an animal action, which does not refer to God. We ought to do everything, even eating, in the name of Christ, giving thanks to God. Everything is sanctified to us if we realise the presence of God.
Satan then cannot hide himself, if in obedience we resist; he flees, conscious that he has met the One who overcame him—Christ in us. The word of God suffices to make us walk in a path, in which Satan has no power, where he is compelled to leave us, in which also we detect his deceit, and discern that he is the enemy. The Saviour walked thus; He quoted the word of God, and the devil was silenced, and sought to deceive Him by other means; he did not openly shew himself, but the perfect obedience of Jesus made his snares powerless. When Satan shewed himself to be such, offering Him the glory of the world, Jesus commands him to depart, and he goes. The Lord’s path is ours, His strength is ours, and if we walk with Him in obedience, His wisdom will be ours: only He has already overcome the tempter. The difficulty is, so to walk in communion with Him, as to discern the deception. We must have the whole armour of God.
In short, if the presence of God is realised in the heart, if the Spirit of God rules there, and the sense of dependence is active in the soul, we shall feel that what the enemy presents to us is not of God, and the will of the new man will not desire it. Satan once detected, the new man resists him, and he has no strength. Jesus has overcome him for us. We learn here that, if we resist him, he will flee; he finds that he has met the Spirit of Christ in us, and he flees. The evil is, that we do not always resist him; we accept his enticements, because the will of God is not everything to us: in many things we still like to please ourselves. If grace is known, obedience and dependence guard us from the wiles of the devil. He has no power against the resistance of faith; he is manifested as Satan, the adversary, as he was when Jesus suffered Himself to be tempted for us, and Satan fled before His resistance. He knows it is the same One whom he meets in us.
This is not the place to speak of the armour of God, yet a few words as to it may be useful. With the exception of the sword, all refers to the state of the soul. The effect of the truth to keep the soul in order, its affections regulated, and conscience having its due power according to the will of God; the breastplate of practical righteousness, so that conscience is good: in the path, the feet must be shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace—that is, the behaviour bearing the stamp of that peace which we enjoy in Christ; then, confidence in God, which these things produce, and which prevents the suggestions of the wicked one from reaching us. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” We shall not be wounded by the fiery darts of the enemy; doubts and evil thoughts about God will find no entrance into the heart; then the certainty of salvation, which enables us to lift up the head in battle with the enemy. Then we can take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, and use it in the conflict; shielded by the armour of God from the enemy’s assaults, we can be active in employing the word in the service of the Lord, though ever dependent upon His help. This dependence expresses itself in prayers and supplications. Let us then resist the devil, and he will flee from us.
Verse 8. Let us “draw near to God, and he will draw near to us.” In this is shewn the active dependence of the heart. Thanks be to God, we can draw near to Him! His throne is for us a throne of grace: we may come into His presence without fear, because of His love, and enter into the holiest by the precious blood of Christ. When near Him, we learn holiness, we discern His will, the eye sees clearly in this pure atmosphere; the heart is subject; the secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him. They walk with God, but as talight of God, and the whole body is full of light. Then He is with us, He draws near to us, He inspires us with confidence. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” says the apostle. It is not only that the strength of God is with us, but His presence produces liberty and confidence in our hearts, for we feel that we have the knowledge of His will, since He is with us. The sense of His presence gives joy, calmness, and courage, in presence of the enemy, and in the difficulties of the way we rest in Him. “Thou wilt hide them in the secret of thy presence from the pride of man; thou wilt keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues.” The presence of God, a true and real thing for the heart, keeps the conscience awake, and the heart filled with quiet confidence. Draw near unto Him.
But to do this, the hands must be cleansed, and the heart purified, that in nothing we may be double-minded. God is light, He will have purity and integrity in the inner man. Full of goodness and condescension, He is swift to help the weak, but He closes His ears to all who are double in heart. He looks for a pure walk and a sincere heart in those who seek to draw near Him. It cannot be otherwise; He holds Himself aloof from those whose hearts are not open in His presence; He sees everything, but for Him to hearken, the heart must be sincere.
James also touches upon the foolish joy of this world, which leads to eternal ruin, and he calls on those who have ears to hear, to be afflicted, to mourn, and weep, and to change their lalighter into mourning. The heart that has intelligence, that thinks of others, and is stirred by love—the Christian, who partakes of the Spirit and thus of the mind of Christ, will have a sense of the moral and actual misery that is around him. He will have joy in Christ, but sorrow as to the condition of men of the world.
Sin has made the world unhappy and miserable; it is itself the greatest of all miseries and one sees on all sides the ills it has brought in. Nevertheless the heart will feel the love of God in the midst of all; it will rejoice in eternal salvation, and in His goodness which has obtained it. It will also rejoice in the daily mercies of God; but this will not be the foolish joy of the world, which seeks to hide its emptiness, and with lalighter to stifle the sense of its misery. Now in solitude, emptiness, and often pain, makes itself felt, which in the company of others is forgotten in lalighter. Men do not like to burden others; they must make them believe they are happy. The world cannot be real with itself; yet sorrow and affliction are but too real. The Lord could weep but not laugh; Christian love and feeling follow His example; they follow it heartily, and from a like feeling. James desires that worldly joy should give place to Christian feelings, sentiments of love, and wisdom. Moreover, in chapter 5, we see that judgment is soon to put an end to the false joy of the world. Here the exhortation is moral; there it refers to the cutting short of this joy by the hand of the Lord.
Then he exhorts them to humble themselves in the sight of the Lord and He would lift them up. It is what Christ did (Phil. 2), and He has said, “He that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humility becomes man; it becomes his littleness before God, in the sense of the greatness of His grace, and of all that man is in himself. The great glory which the believer waits for is also the occasion of humility to him when he considers his unworthiness: he knows that he can understand and do nothing in divine things without God.
But James, having in his thoughts the pride and halightiness of the spirit of the world, which is also in the Christian, desires not only humility, but the humbling of self. If one is humble, there is no need to humble oneself; but in reality the spirit of man rises up again so easily, that we do need to humble ourselves, and to realise the presence of God. In His presence we are always humble; we have the sense of our own littleness; we think of Him, not of ourselves. To exalt the proud would only be to encourage that pride which becomes neither sinful man nor pious man; moreover, piety and pride cannot exist together. But God delights in exalting the humble, and such an exaltation, coming as it does from God, is a source of gratitude and joy, not of pride. The heart is with God in the sense of His goodness.
Remark, that the humbling oneself is in the sight of the Lord, not of men—a real inward work which destroys self-esteem; realising the presence and the greatness of God, it gives Him His true place in the heart, and gives us ours also. Then all is real, and then alone we can act for God according to truth. Verses 9, 10 are the effect of the realised presence of God in a world of sin and misery, on a heart which is there, and which feels both the one and the other.
“Speak not evil,” says our epistle, “one of another”; a formal precept, which ought to restrain many tongues if they were obedient, and which would put an end to much evil. Love would not do it; but as we have seen, the tongue is a fatal evil, full of deadly poison, and it kindles a great matter.
But there is more. He who speaks evil of his brother, and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law, and judges the law. For the law, on the part of God, presents our brother to us as an object of love and affection, not to be persecuted, ill-treated, and disparaged in the eyes of others. By so doing, we forget the place in which the law has set our brother, and our duty according to the law, and our position as brethren. If we set ourselves as judges and law-givers over the law, we transgress it, we do not obey it, nor follow its precepts; but we assume to be above it. There is one Lawgiver and Judge who is able to save and to destroy. Who are we that we should judge one another?
The word again condemns false confidence as to the intentions of our own hearts. The heart of man afar from God thinks to direct his own steps, and decides what he will do, without thinking of the will of God, or even of God at all. Possibly the thing intended may not be evil, it may not wound conscience, nor make it uneasy; but God is entirely forgotten; the man acts without God, as though the earth had been left to man, and God had withdrawn, and as though His will counted for nothing. Such a man, as far as regards religion, in the practical things of everyday life, lives in atheism. God is not in his thoughts; money and worldly ambition govern his heart, though he may not be exactly living in sinful pleasures. He has no sense that he belongs to God—bought, if he be a Christian, with the precious blood of Christ. He lays out his plans according to his own will, his own wisdom, and his worldly interests. God has no place in them, he is without God in the world, he seeks earthly things, and truly it is not in them that God is to be found. It is according to the will of God that we should labour to obtain what is necessary, and His blessing can be sought because it is His will. But this is not the question here. James speaks of one who would dispose of his time, and go and seek gain for himself without thinking of God, or looking to Him for guidance and the manifestation of His will. He does not know what the morrow will bring forth; he does not know whether his life will be prolonged until the next day; it is as a vapour which vanishes away. Such is life down here. It becomes us to say, “If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this or that.”
James always and everywhere opposes the pretensions of man’s will; he would have the will broken, that man may take his true place, and be in his true condition of obedience and subjection. God must have his place and man must be dependent and obedient. All the activity and all the pretensions of man’s will are evil.
Another important principle is found at the end of this chapter. Man’s own will is always evil. Where there is the knowledge of good, the heart, or at least the state of man is evil, if he does it not. Grace and love are lacking. To seek self-interest, to do one’s own will, to satisfy one’s own desires, characterises the natural man. To do good, to seek the good of others, and to serve them, is the fruit of love. Now, if, when there is the knowledge of what is good, and the opportunity of doing it occurs, man does it not, it is a sign that the heart is evil; love for others, and the desire to do good is lacking. Not to do good is sin; it shews the absence of grace and the activity of the natural will.
The portion of believers is not in this world. Christ has won them for Himself, that they should be in His likeness in glory, co-heirs with Him; for His love would have them enjoy all that He Himself enjoys. His love is perfect. But if so, they must suffer with Him. If it is given to us to suffer for Him, it is a great privilege, but it is not the portion of all. Nevertheless all who will five godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution; 2 Tim. 3:12.
But it is impossible to escape suffering with Him; if we have the Spirit of Christ, we feel as Christ felt. Holiness suffers at the sight of the sin which is around, and in seeing the condition of the church of God and of His people; besides which there is sorrow on all sides, and the need of souls who will not have Christ or salvation. Each one ought to take up his cross, and besides this, God permits us to suffer, because in so doing, we learn patience, and that our inheritance is not below. Experience, which is the realisation of practical truth, is confirmed in the heart, and hope becomes much clearer and stronger. This, it is true, supposes that the love of God is shed abroad in the heart by the Holy Ghost; and if this is not the case, God allows suffering, and also sends it, to renew the heart. He chastens whom He loves.
James addresses the rich, who have possessions in this world, and who do not consider the poor, whilst “blessed is the man that considereth the poor,” Psalm 41:1. He who despises the poor because of his poverty despises the Lord Himself. “As for me,” says the Lord, in the psalm preceding the one from which I have quoted, “I am poor and needy,” Psalm 40:17. The Lord had pronounced His blessing upon the poor; to such the gospel was preached; it was a sign announcing the Messiah. We all know that a poor man may be just as wicked as any other; but riches are a positive danger for us, because they nourish pride, and tend to dispose the heart to keep aloof from the poor, with whom the Lord associated Himself in this world. “He who was rich for our sakes became poor, that we through his poverty might be rich.”
But here the rich had been foremost in evil. They oppressed the poor, they kept back from them the wages for which they had laboured. James places us in view of the last days. The cry of the poor had entered into the ears of the Lord of hosts. He exhorts the rich to weep and howl for the miseries that should come upon them. They had lived in pleasure on the earth and been wanton. But not only this: when we live in pleasure, we do not like anyone to come and disturb our happiness—they had condemned and killed the Just, who had not resisted. They wished to secure the enjoyment of the world in a false tranquillity, which thinks neither of God, nor of judgment, nor of death.
If conscience was aroused, they were disturbed, and they hardened themselves as far as possible, that it might not be aroused.
God does not for the present alter the course of this world. If He did so, He must execute judgment, instead of working in love for the ungodly and sinners. He is not willing to smite them, nevertheless He is not slack concerning His promise, but is longsuffering to usward, not willing that any should perish. The Christian then must take courage, must be patient and submissive to outward evil, until the coming of the Lord; even as Christ Himself, who did well, and suffered, and waited patiently; thus the Christian should walk in His steps. Our portion is not in this world. If we suffer for well-doing, this is acceptable to God, and still more so, if it is for Christ Himself that we suffer.
The life of the Saviour was all suffering and patience; but now He is glorified with God the Father. Soon He will come a second time into the world, in the glory of the Father, and in His own glory, and in the glory of the angels; and then He will be glorified in His saints, and will be admired in all them that believe.
In that glorious day, when the poorest of His own— Christians, oppressed by the enemies of the truth—will be like the Lord Himself in glory, we shall make our boast in having been permitted to suffer for Him, and in having maintained patience and silence through the unjustly imposed sufferings of the Christian life. Then, “blessed are they who are found watching; he will gird himself, and will make them sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.” What joy! What grace! It will be the glory of the Saviour Himself to give us to enjoy the blessings of heaven in the Father’s house, ministering all with His own hands. It is well worth while to suffer for Him a little, and for a little while, and then to possess heavenly blessing, communicated by the hand and the heart of Jesus Himself. We shall reign with Him, and enjoy the fruit of the work which we have been permitted to do for Him; if it is only a cup of water given in the name of Jesus, it shall not lose its reward. But far better still will it be to sit down in peace, enjoying those eternal blessings in the Father’s house, which Christ will abundantly minister to us—precious testimony of His approval and of His love. See Luke 12:35-44.
Remark here how the coming of Christ was a present hope. The oppressed one was to have patience until that coming. “Be patient,” says James, “until the coming of the Lord.” Some one may say, then they were deceived. By no means. We may indeed die before the Lord’s coming, and in fact, we know that these saints did die. But they will reap all the fruits of their patience, when the Lord comes. And till that moment they are with the Lord—absent from the body, present with the Lord—and they will come with Him, and will then enjoy all the fruit of those sufferings, in which they had been patient, for the love of His name, seeking to glorify it down here.
But this exhortation clearly shews how this hope was a present thing, which was interwoven with the entire thread of Christian life. It was not a theory in the head, a point of acquired knowledge, or a dogma of belief only. They expected the Lord in person. What consolation for the poor and the oppressed! What a check upon the rich to be constantly expecting the Lord! To know that He will soon come, that troubles will cease, and that we shall be with Him who has loved us! Nothing produces separation from the world like waiting for the Lord—I do not say the doctrine of His coming, but true waiting for Him. His coming will separate us from it for ever; the heart waits until He come.
The Lord’s supper expresses the Christian state—the Lord’s death at His first coming, which we celebrate with thanksgiving, remembering Him who has loved us, and feeding on His love until He comes to take us to be with Him. It is the formal expression of the practical state of the Christian as a Christian—of Christianity itself. Let us add, that it is by the Holy Spirit alone that we are able to express this in truth.
But remark yet another thing in this exhortation. “Be patient, brethren.” We are always waiting for the Lord, if we really understand our position; but whatever may be our desires, we cannot command the Lord to come, nor know when He will come. And blessed be His name! the Lord is patient; as long as there is yet one soul to be called by the gospel, He will not come. His whole body, His bride, must be formed; every member must be present, converted and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Then He will come and take us. Christ Himself is seated on the Father’s throne, not on His own throne. He also is waiting for that moment, with more desire surely than we are; and therefore the patience of Christ is spoken of: this is the true meaning of Revelation 1:9. Thus also in Revelation 3:10, “because thou hast kept the word of my patience”; also in 2 Thessalonians 3:5,” the patience of Christ.”
We are talight also in Hebrews 10:12,13, that Christ is seated at the right hand of God, waiting till His enemies shall be made His footstool. We may well wait if Christ is waiting; but we wait in suffering and conflict. He is waiting to reign, and then He will cause full blessing to flow forth for His own, whether in heaven or on earth, and will banish evil from both.
Thus we need patience, that neither self-will nor weariness of the conflict should take possession of our souls; but in the confidence that the time God wills is best (for it is that which divine wisdom and His love for us have ordained) let us fix our affections on the Lord and on things above, because we wait for Him with desire of heart, with broken will, and unwavering faith, leaving His return to the decision of God. In fact we cannot retard it, but the heart has entire confidence in His love, assured that the Lord waits for us with greater love than we for Him, calm in confidence, patient in the wilderness journey. How sweet to wait for Christ—for the fulness of joy with Him! Thanks be to God, He says, “it is at hand.”
Moreover, James draws two practical consequences from this expectation of the Lord. First, then we ought not to resist evil; the Just One did not resist. We must wait with patience, as the husbandman waits for the precious fruits of the earth, until he have received the early and the latter rain, the means which God uses to bring the fruit of harvest to perfection. The Christian should stablish his heart by this expectation, while passing through the troubles of this life, and the persecutions of the world, which is ever the adversary of the Lord.
Next, he warns the disciples against walking in a complaining and quarrelsome spirit, one toward another. If we are waiting for the Lord, the spirit is calm and contented, it does not get irritated with its persecutors; moreover, we bear with patience the ills of the desert, and resist evil as Christ resisted, suffering, and bearing wrongs and committing Himself to God. We are contented and quiet, with a happy and kindly spirit, for kindness flows easily from a happy heart. The Lord’s coming will put everything right, and our happiness is found elsewhere. This is what Paul says in Philippians 4:5: “Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.” Let us repeat it. How real, how mighty and practical, was this expectation of the Lord! What power it had over the heart! “The Judge standeth before the door.”
Then he gives examples. The prophets were examples of suffering affliction, and of patience, and they counted them happy in their sufferings. And they have not been alone; others also have endured, and have been counted happy. For example, if we see one suffering unjustly for the name of Jesus, and he is patient and meek, his heart called out on behalf of his persecutors, rather than irritated against them, then we recognise the power of faith, and of confidence in the love and faithfulness of the Lord; he is calm and full of joy, and we say, See how grace makes that man happy! And we too are happy when we suffer; at least, we ought to be so. But it is one thing to admire others who are sustained by the Spirit of Christ, and another to glory in tribulations, when we are in them ourselves. We need a broken will, confidence in God, communion with Him who has suffered for us, in order to be able to glory in sufferings.
Job is another example; but he is introduced here, to shew the end of the Lord, that He is very pitiful, and of tender mercy. Yet the example is most instructive. Job was a perfect and upright man, who feared God and eschewed evil; but he had begun to take pleasure in himself; he did good, but he was occupied with his goodness; it was hidden self-righteousness, but it marred his piety. God withdraws not His eyes from the righteous. He saw Job’s danger, and drew Satan’s attention to him. It was God who began all. Satan, the accuser of the saints, insists that Job should be sifted, and God permits him to tempt Job, to do as he would with him, but sets a limit to his malice. Satan did all that he was allowed to do, and Job remained subject, and did not sin with his lips. Satan persists in his accusations, insinuating that, if the trial were increased, Job would curse God. God gave all into his hand except Job’s life. Job remained faithful; he did not sin; he had received good at the Lord’s hand, and should he not receive evil? His wife also tempted him in vain.
Through grace Job’s patience triumphed over Satan, who was unable to shake him. Through the grace of God, the efforts of the enemy were overcome: “We have heard of the patience of Job.” But the work of God for Job’s blessing was not yet accomplished. He had by His grace sustained Job’s heart against the enemy, and Job had shewn his faithfulness. Satan, as the instrument of God’s ways, had done much through the sorrow he had brought upon Job; but Job’s heart was not yet reached; he did not know himself; on the contrary, although the preparation had been wrought by means of Satan, Job was, by the grace of God, practically justified from his accusations, and if the matter had ended there, his state would have been worse than before—at least he would have been in greater danger than ever; he could have said, I was meek and upright in prosperity, and now patient in adversity. God must do His work, in order that Job might know his own heart.
Job’s friends come to see him. They remain seated, amazed at the condition in which they find him. Alas! pride is often roused in the presence of man, and wounded pride irritates the heart; firmness gives way in the presence of sympathy. However that may be, the presence of his friends lays bare the depth of Job’s heart. He curses the day of his birth. Now his heart is laid bare, not only to God, which it always must be, but—which is so deeply painful—to himself. Where is now his gracious meekness? He contends with God; he says he is more righteous than God. Nevertheless it is beautiful to see that at the bottom of his heart he had just thoughts of God. If I could meet Him, he says to his friends, He would not be like you, He would put words into my mouth. His friends alleged this world to be a perfect display of God’s government, and that consequently Job must be a hypocrite; for he had made a profession of piety. Job resists this unjust decision, and insists that, although the hand of God was occasionally manifested, yet evil often ran its course in the world, God taking no notice of it, for the wicked often prospered. But Job allowed the bitterness of his heart to come out. Elihu reproves him for making himself more righteous than God, shewing that there is indeed a government of God over His own. He withdraws not His eyes from the righteous; He chastens because He loves them. Then God manifests Himself, and shews Job the folly of contending with Him; upon which Job owns his vileness and his nothingness, and instead of saying, “When the eye saw me, it blessed me,” he says, “Mine eye seeth thee, therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” He knows himself in the presence of God. After that God was able to bless him, and He did so more than at the first. This was “the end of the Lord.” Job had been patient under the greatest afflictions and trials; God searched his heart, and then abundandy blessed him.
In verse 12 James continues the subject which forms the burden of his teaching. He will not have the will to act, nor the flesh to appear, but the activity of nature restrained, and the heart learning not to give way to those impulses of impatience to which it is so prone.
When a man swears, he allows this impatience of the heart to act; he forgets the glory and majesty of God, irreverently introducing His name with unbridled flesh to confirm an assertion, or to give force to a vow, or in His place he puts some creature whom he invests with the authority and power that belongs to God alone. The root of all is the unsubdued will and unbridled passions of man’s heart. Only, with an intuitive sense of his impotency to ensure the fulfilment of his desires, he irreverently brings God in, or, as a heathen of old was wont to do, he introduces some creature practically deified for the occasion. It is not lust, but the unbridled impetuosity of the flesh (see Col. 3:8), the irreverence, presumption, and independence of the man carried to its utmost extent.
Therefore James says, “Above all things.” He would have us, in calmness and quietness, affirm what we have to say with a yes or a no, in the fear of God. It is of all importance, that we should hold in check the movements of nature. We should do it if we saw God before us; we should certainly do it in the presence of a man whom we wished to please. Now God is always present; therefore, to fail in this calmness and moderation is a proof that we have forgotten the presence of God.
Verse 13. James frees the mind from worldly habits. Men seek to deceive themselves by avoiding thought; they would foolishly forget the cares and troubles, from which they cannot escape, and amid which, thanks be to God, He gives a refuge to the heart in His love, and in the sense of His care for us. He would not have us insensible to the troubles of this life. God, who never withdraws His eyes from the righteous, sends them for our good. Even a sparrow does not fall to the ground without our Father—not only without the will of God, but not without that God who loves us as a tender Father, who may indeed chasten us, but who thinks upon us while chastening, in order to sanctify us, and to draw our hearts nearer to Himself.
By drawing near to God in affliction, the will is subdued, and the heart consoled and encouraged. God Himself is revealed to the soul, and works by His grace; and in the sense of His presence we say, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted.” And not only are we near to God, but we also open our hearts to Him. He would have us do so, for He is full of grace. He desires our confidence, not only that we may be subject to His will, but that we may present our cares to Him.
“Be careful for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus,” Phil. 4:6, 7. Paul is speaking here of cares, but comfort and rest are equally found there in affliction. “Who comforteth us,” says the apostle, “in all our afflictions,” and he appeals to God as “the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation.” At Philippi they were filled with peace, through the consolation poured into their hearts. This may also be through circumstances; for Paul says, “God, who comforteth those that are cast down, comforted us by the coming of Titus,” 2 Cor. 7:6. He had been utterly cast down, because he had not met Titus, who had been sent to the Corinthians when they were walking very badly. He had abandoned the open door for the gospel at Troas, and his heart had even gone the length of regretting that he had written his first inspired epistle. His faith had sunk below the level of the power of God, which had impelled him to write it. Arrived in Macedonia, still on his way to meet Titus, though testifying to Christ as he went, his flesh had no rest; he says, “We were troubled on every side; without were fightings, within were fears.” God allowed the apostle to feel his weakness; but it is worth while to be afflicted, if God Himself becomes our comforter. Titus arrives bringing good tidings to the effect of his first epistle, and the apostle is full of joy. God often takes away the affliction itself and fills the soul with gladness, pouring His consolations into the heart which thus becomes more matured for communion with Himself and for heaven. In every case of affliction prayer is our resource; we own our dependence and we confide in His goodness. The heart draws near to Him, it tells out to Him its need and its sorrow, laying it down on the throne and the heart of God, who answers either by circumstances which make us happy, or by pouring in His consolation—an answer which is still more blessed than outward happiness—but ever by that which is best for us, acting according to His perfect love.
The pious heart, under the influence of grace, refers also to God in its joy. If the heart dwells only on the cause of its joy, this becomes a danger for it. But if God is a refuge in distress, so is He the portion of the soul in joy. When I have a subject of happiness, I tell my intimate friend, that he may rejoice with me, and this doubles my own joy. But in this passage there is something more; for the heart feels that God is the source of the blessing and the cause of the joy. Even when there is no special reason for rejoicing, the heart is happy, and the pious soul, living in communion with God, desires to have God with it in its joy. Moreover, if the soul gives itself up to joy, it becomes empty and light; the heart gets estranged from God, and folly takes possession of it. In trouble dependence upon God is realised, hut in joy there is a danger of forgetting it, and joy often ends in a fall; at any rate, the flesh is then in activity, and God is forgotten. This exhortation of James, to mingle joy with piety, is therefore most important for the Christian.
If the thought of God is there, it expresses itself in psalms and thanksgivings to Him. God is present to us in our joy, and faith, communion, and spiritual power are increased by the sense of His goodness. Thus we apply ourselves to the toils of life, encouraged and strengthened through the sorrows of the wilderness, by a deeper conviction that God is for us.
Verse 14. The thought of affliction and joy leads James to another condition of the Christian, namely, sickness, which is often, though not always, the effect of the Lord’s chastening. Sickness, as well as death, came in by sin; and we find it now throughout the whole course of man’s history. But a sparrow falls not to the ground without God our Father, as the Lord says, and although these ills now belong to the natural condition of man, yet God uses them for the correction of His children. “He withdraweth not his eyes from the righteous,” Job 36:7. In either case, whether as ills natural to humanity, or the direct chastisement of God, God now makes use of sickness, when the heart, instead of considering all that happens to it with indifference, draws near to God, who thinks upon the sufferings of His own, and has respect to the submission and to the cry of those whom He chastens.
The prayer of faith heals the sick, and if the sickness is the consequence of sin, the sin which occasioned it shall be forgiven; the sufferer has owned the hand of God in his sickness, and God answers to the faith of him who prays. There are two kinds of forgiveness in the ways of God. Eternal justification—according to Romans 4 and Hebrews 10 —is the blessed portion of those who believe in the efficacy of the blood of Christ; that is to say, their sins are imputed to them no more. “Whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” God took up the question of their sins at the cross, and He has made an end of them for ever; He will never remember them again. But there is also the government of God—the government of a Father, but of a holy Father who loves His children too well to allow them to walk badly.
When in the book of Job Elihu says that God withdraws not His eyes from the righteous, and shews the blessing which naturally flows from His favour, the effect of His goodness, he immediately goes on to speak of chastening—an explanation clearly of Job’s case.
The Spirit of God here again supposes the possibility of such a case, speaking of my faults. But it is not always so. In Job 33 it is said that God speaks and seals their instruction, that He may withdraw man from his purpose, and hide pride from man. He prevents the evil, as in Paul’s case; 2 Cor. 12. He humbles man to prepare him for blessing. In every case He makes all things work together for good to those who love Him; Rom. 8:28.
Now, if the will be not broken, we complain, and murmur, and lift ourselves up against God; but if the heart refers to Him, owning His hand, whether in suffering which is the natural heritage of sinful man (though it can never be apart from the hand and will of God), or in positive chastisement, or again, though it may not know why the suffering is sent, it turns to God, owns that its condition is the result of His will, and seeks the remedy in His grace, as subject to and dependent on His power and His will. Now the faith of true Christians alone can call down from above the answer and the blessing.
James no longer speaks of the synagogue, but of the assembly. There must be true faith, in order for blessing: now God has set blessing in the assembly of true believers; in His government and discipline it is found there for faith. When sin is openly manifested in such a way, that it can be said of one called a brother that he is a wicked person, it is the duty of the assembly to put him away from among themselves. The sins are bound upon the one who is thus put away. But if he humbles himself, and from the bottom of his heart owns his sin, then the assembly ought to restore him (2 Cor. 2); in this administrative sense, the sinner is pardoned, the bonds are loosed.
And this is valid for two or three who are gathered to the name of Christ in the unity and in the power of the Holy Ghost (Matt. 18); for it is by the Spirit alone that this can be done in reality. It must be done also by the assembly as such, not only because the promise belongs to it, but also that it may clear itself. It is to the assembly that the exhortation of 2 Corinthians 2:7, 8, is addressed. The sanction of this solemn act is in the presence of Jesus according to His promise.
In this passage in our epistle, it is not a question of sins which draw upon the individual the judicial action of the assembly, but of the ways of God Himself, in the ordinary circumstances of life, and more especially as regards the chastening of God. Now the individual seeks the intervention of God, according to His grace, not viewing what has befallen him as an accident, but owning the hand of the Lord. The assembly is the place where He has set His name, and His blessing, and the general administration of His grace. Christ is there; and when the assembly was in order, the elders, those who watched over it, were sought by the sick person, in order that he might enjoy the grace and the blessing of God.
Nevertheless it was personal faith, which by prayer drew down the special blessing of heaven— “the prayer of faith,” as it is said. The elders were but a sign of the special intervention of God, as we see in Mark 6:13. There it was a miracle performed by those who were specially sent by Christ to do them, with power given for that purpose. Here it is the blessing of God in the bosom of the assembly, administered through its elders, if faith was there. The original order now exists no longer; but Christ does not forget His assembly. The promise of two or three gathered to His name, according to the unity of His Spirit, remains always sure; and if there is faith in those who watch over them, the answer of God will be found in a like way. Though we cannot expect that the blessing should flow in its natural current, when the channels are broken and spoiled, the case remains the same, and His power is unchangeable. It is precious to know it! When the Lord rebukes the disciples for their unbelief, He says at the same moment, “bring him to me”: and the child was healed; Mark 9:19.
Therefore James recalls the example of Elijah, who was a man of like passions with ourselves; yet in answer to his prayer it rained not for three years and six months. The external order of the assembly is lost, but the power, love, and faithfulness of the Lord are unchanged. He may let us feel that, through the sin of the assembly, we are not as we were at the beginning: nevertheless, where God gives faith, the answer on His part will never fail. That is not godliness, which does not feel the loss that has come upon us since the time of the apostles, through the unfaithfulness of the assembly; neither is it godliness to doubt the power of Christ, if God gives faith to make use of it.
When it is said, “if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him,” it means, that when such a brother has come to himself, owning the hand of God, if sins have drawn upon him the chastisement of God, and have hindered the healing of the sickness, they shall be forgiven as regards the discipline of God in His government. This discipline had manifested itself in the chastening, that is to say, in the sickness: if this is removed, the discipline is ended, the sins are remitted.
But here we find another and more general instruction, which, however, also depends upon the state of the assembly. We have seen that, when all was in order, the sick person was to send for the elders; and this can still be done by calling for those who practically are elders. Only it is needful that faith wrought of God, and those acting on His part, should be there. But, whatever may be the state of ruin in which the assembly of God is found, we can always confess our faults one to another, and pray for one another, that we may be healed. This does not require the existence of official order, but it supposes humility, and brotherly confidence, and love.
We cannot indeed confess our faults without confidence in a brother’s love. We may choose a wise and discreet brother (instead of opening our hearts to indiscreet persons), but this choice alters nothing as to the guilty person’s state of soul. Not hiding the evil, but opening his heart, he frees his troubled conscience; perhaps also his body.
Truth is wrought in the heart; the guilty one does not seek a good reputation—which after all, can only be a false one—but an upright conscience, upright before God. God takes pleasure in setting the conscience at liberty; He also frees the body from the sickness if necessary; then the heart grows happy in the sense of His favour. A pure and upright conscience is a source of joy in God’s presence.
It is most important to remember that there is a government of God with respect to His children. It is no question whether they are justified and forgiven; for this government supposes that they are righteous in His right, as to salvation; Job 36. But then the Lord ever keeps His eye upon them, blesses them, and makes them conscious of His favour when they are walking aright in the enjoyment of God. But if we do not walk aright, we are warned, and if we do not take heed to the voice of God, He chastens in order to arouse the soul that is falling asleep and has begun to forget God. And His goodness, His wondrous patience, His love for us, are never weary!
Verse 19. Finally, James adds an exhortation to encourage our hearts to seek the blessing of others. He who brings back a sinner from the error of his ways is not only the means 6f saving that soul, whether it be a sinner walking in his sins, or a Christian walking badly, but also of hiding a multitude of sins. That the soul of an unconverted man should be saved is simple; in the case of a Christian pursuing an evil way, he is at least arrested in the road which leads to perdition.
But this second point calls for a little more explanation, and it is not without importance. Sin is hateful in the sight of God; He sees everything. When we think of the state of the world, we understand how wonderful is His patience. Now the conversion of a sinner removes all his sins from before the eyes of God. As though they were cast into the depths of the sea, He sees them no more; as it is written. They are immediately cancelled. It is in this sense that “love covereth a multitude of sins.” They are no longer there as an object hateful to God. If we do not forgive the sins of a brother, the enmity remains before God as a wound in the body of believers, something that is not healed. When forgiven, love is the object that presents itself before God—a thing pleasing to His heart. Thus when the sinner is converted—brought back, the love of God finds its pleasure in this, and the offending object is removed from His sight.
In the Epistle of James we find but little doctrine; it is rather the girdle of righteousness, the manifestation of faith in works, in the Christian character. Submission under the hand of God, and patience under His government, are developed in a way most useful to the Christian.
10 Nod is the same word as vagabond (Gen. 4:14). He built a city, where God had made him a vagabond, and this is what man has done.