The title taken by the writer deserves our consideration: "James, bondman of God and of [the] Lord Jesus Christ." It expressed his absolute devotedness to God as well as to the Lord Jesus Christ. He was bondman of both equally. He honoured the Son even as he honoured the Father. He avowed from the beginning his unqualified subjection to both. This was just what was most needed by the Israelites to whom he wrote. He sought the everlasting good of them all, as the style of his address attested: "to the twelve tribes that [are] in the dispersion, greeting" (ver. 1). The last word reminds us that it is in the letter which the apostles and elders with the whole assembly sent to the brethren from among the nations in defence of Christian liberty (Acts 15). But here the letter is directed only to the ancient people of God in their entirety, now a long while in a state of dispersion. For the return from Babylon had not hindered this, as only a small minority had returned from their exile. To all the twelve tribes he wrote, as being of the circumcision, even more widely than did Peter when he addressed his two Epistles to the sojourners in Asia Minor. For he qualified it by terms of vital Christianity, "elect according to foreknowledge of God the Father, by sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ." No such restriction appears here, though James without reserve confesses his own self-abnegating service of the Lord Jesus Christ no less than of God, and specifies living faith in Him among those to whom he writes.
But the Epistle is characteristically moral and hortative, not basing its appeals as the apostles in general did on an unfolding of grace and truth, so much as revealing by the way now and then the sovereign goodness that comes down from above, from the Father of lights, Who alone is reliable in a world of incessant change, and has quickened us by the word of truth, and has promised the crown of life to them that love Him.
Hence it opens with a cheering call to such as were in danger of being faint-hearted and cast down by their trials. The Jews naturally looked for outward marks of divine favour; yet psalms and prophets revealed deeper things. James goes farther still.
"Count [it] all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into various temptations, knowing that the proving of your faith worketh out endurance; but let endurance have a perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking in nothing" (vers. 2-4).
It is the counterpart of our Lord's beatitudes in Matthew 5. For the blessed in His eyes and mouth are, not only of no account in the world, but sufferers from it for righteousness' sake, and for Christ's, poor in spirit, meek, mourners, hungerers after righteousness, merciful, and more. They are called to rejoice and exult, for great is their reward in heaven. So here, "count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into various temptations." In this world of sin and ruin, God not only works in grace but carries on a discipline of souls, and turns trials of all sorts into an occasion of blessing for all that own Him and seek His guidance. Selfwill hardens itself against each trial, or yields to discouragement and even despair. Faith recognises the love that never changes, and judges the self that resists His will or despises His word; and, as faith bows submissively, it reaps profit, and grows by the knowledge of Him.
Hence is the believer entitled and emboldened to think it every sort of joy whensoever he falls into varied trials, as indeed they may be of all kinds. It is not that Christians are exempt from sorrow - far from it, or that we should not feel the sorrow, any more than forget God's grace. Thus the trial throws us back on Him without Whom not a sparrow falls on the ground and by Whom the very hairs of our head are all numbered. Affliction comes not forth of the dust, nor does trouble spring out of the ground. All is under His hand Who has made us His for glory, and meanwhile puts our faith to the test in this present evil age, habituating us not only to patience but to endurance.
So it was that Christ walked here below, leaving us an example that we should follow His steps. His meat was to do the will of Him that sent Him and to accomplish His work; His joy was in His love and the glorious counsels which He knew, and which will soon be the manifest issue. He indeed endured the cross, as was only possible to Him; but He suffered all through in a way proper to Himself, and learned obedience through it (for before, He had only commanded); yet what was not His joy, man of sorrows though He was and acquainted with grief beyond all others! He could and did upbraid the cities wherein most of His mighty works were done, because they repented not; for their guilt was worse than the worst judged of old. But at that season it was that He answered and said, "I praise thee [I confess to Thee], Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou didst hide these things from wise and prudent, and didst reveal them to babes: yea, Father, for thus it was well-pleasing in Thy sight. . .Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest for your souls."
Here, too, the ground of joy in sorrow is explained, knowing that the proving of our faith worketh out endurance, as the apostle in Rom_5:4 speaks of the saints "knowing that tribulation worketh out endurance." Both are equally true; but it is plain that tribulation could produce no such effect unless there was the faith that stood the test. And such was his prayer for the Colossians that they might be "strengthened with all power according to the might of His glory unto all endurance and long-suffering with joy." The character of the inspired writings may differ ever so much in suitability to God's design in each; but there is unity of spirit also beyond all doubt in His revealed mind. He cannot deny Himself.
There is an important caution added. "But let endurance have a perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking in nothing." The contrast of this we see in Saul, king of Israel, who did not wait out the full time and lost the kingdom (1 Sam. 14). Even in David we see failure of endurance when, fleeing from Saul, he sought Achish in Gath (1 Sam. 27-29). Christ alone was perfect in this as in all else. Endurance has a perfect work, when we judge our own will and await God's. Then and thus only are we perfect and entire, deficient in nothing. It cannot contradict Jam_3:2 for all that.
When a soul has fairly entered on the path of trials, which faith never fails to experience in a world departed from God, he soon finds his lack of wisdom. But his comfort is that He with Whom he has to do is alone wise, and ready to guide those that wait on Him. How much better it is that wisdom should be in Him that we may be dependent on His guidance, than if it were a possession vested in us, exposed to the danger of our setting up to do without Him! Therefore comes the exhortation to pray (cf. Luk_18:1); for our need is all the greater because we are God's children in a world where all is opposed to God. "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God that giveth to all freely and reproacheth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing doubting. For he that doubteth is like a wave of the sea wind-driven and tossed (for let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord): a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways" (vers 5-8).
It is of the essence of the new nature that the believer has to live in dependence on God, and to find its present exercise in the midst of trials by cultivating that confidence in Him which finds its proper expression in prayer. Hence it is that, if any one becomes sensible of deficient wisdom in presence of the many difficulties of this life, he is directed to ask of God that gives to all freely and upbraids not. How full of cheer and re-assurance! Even Christ, Himself God's wisdom, habitually waited on God, prayed at all times where men least look for it, and spent the night in prayer when the occasion called for it. If He then Who never lacked wisdom so lived, how much should we be ashamed of our failure in so drawing near to God and drawing from Him what He so readily gives!
The expression employed to encourage us is striking. He "giveth to all freely and reproacheth not." Wisdom no doubt is primarily what is sought, as it is in our trials peculiarly requisite; but the Holy Spirit is pleased to enlarge our expectation, that we may know better "the giving God," "the unreproaching God." And a word is used here to characterise Him, to which the apostle Paul exhorts the Christian in his giving (Rom_12:8): "He that giveth, in simplicity." For how often do mixed motives seek entrance into the heart in giving! Liking rather than love here, dislike hindering there, self-importance, regard for character, sympathy with others on the one hand, and on the other prudential or unbelieving fear under questionable pleas. Hence the call on the giver among us to give with simplicity. Singleness of eye here as elsewhere promotes love, as it ensures light; and the issue is liberality. And so the various English versions agree, from Wiclif to the Authorised. For both Wiclif and Purvey give the primary meaning "in simpleness," Tyndale, Cranmer, and the Geneva, "with singleness"; Rheims "in simplicity," and the Auth. "with simplicity." Again, Wiclif, and the Wiclifite have in our text "largeli," Tyndale and Cranmer "indifferently," Geneva "freely," Rheims "abundantly," and the Auth. "liberally": all of them a secondary meaning. Of these "freely" seems to suit God best, as flowing readily from the primary force which hardly befits Him, while it well becomes us. And it may be added that these respective meanings are in excellent keeping with the writers; of whom Paul looks at the inner source, James rather at the result.
That God in giving freely does not reproach the receiver is no small favour. How often in man's case the fact is, that the grace is accompanied with such a drawback express or implied! God acts worthily of Himself Who is good.
But if a petition is thus freely and graciously given of God to him that asks, there is the requisite condition, "let him ask in faith, nothing doubting." God will be enquired of suitably; and the least of all does it become man, so favoured, to fail or to doubt in anything. "He that spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not also with Him freely give us all things?" Even in the very trials which are most painful - "in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us."
"For he that doubteth is like a wave of the sea wind-driven and tossed (for let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord): a double minded man, unstable in all his ways." Here is the contrast, alas! not uncommon even of old. Collectively "surge" is a known sense of the word rendered "wave," which is not the ordinary term (κῦμα though this occurs repeatedly in the N.T. It is rather a billow singly, but here the sport of winds to and fro. How could it be otherwise in him who in his weakness does not lean on the Lord? Whatever may be given, there is no real receiving from the Lord on his part who does not trust Him. If in one way he speaks, in another he feels and acts, being of double soul. Instability marks all his course. Is not God ashamed to own such a one? (Heb_11:16).
There is indeed no excuse, for him that confesses the Lord Jesus Christ, to be a double-souled man. Without the knowledge of Him a man may easily be unstable in all his ways; and it is no real credit to him if he be firm in the pursuit of self, braving trial instead of bowing to God with profit and joy to his soul. Christ alone is the true measure of all; and such was His manifestation here below in absolute superiority not only to every circumstance but to all evil. He and He only was the Faithful Witness. In Christ is God's secret of stedfastness for man in a world of sin. And there is more, yea all, in Him to fill the heart with joy and give needed wisdom.
"But let the lowly brother glory in his elevation, and the rich in his humiliation, because as flower of grass he will pass away. For the sun arose with its scorching and withered the grass, and its flower fell away, and the comeliness of its look perished: thus also will the rich one fade in his goings. Blest [is] a man who endureth trial; because, having been put to the proof, he shall receive the crown of life which He promised to those that love Him" (vers. 9-12),
Here again it is Christ Who alone sheds the full light of God on the inequalities of position on the earth, and turns them into a ground not of acquiescence only, but of pleasing God in exercising suitably the new nature. In the world covetousness is the universal idolatry, and mammon its idol. And the Jew fell under a similar condition readily, as he looked for blessings on his obedience, in the city and in the field, in the family and in the flock, in the basket and in the kneading trough. But the day is coming when God will put down all evil, stilling the roaring of the seas and the tumult of the peoples, and lifting Israel out of their low estate, when at the feet of Messiah they truly own the God of their salvation. Then will the outgoings of the morning and evening rejoice, when God visits the earth and waters, when He crowns the years with His goodness, and His paths drop fatness, and the hills are girded with joy, and the valleys, covered over with corn, shout for joy and sing.
For God will have blessed Israel then, and thenceforward will for ever bless them, and all the ends of the earth shall fear Him. It will be the day, not of man, but of Jehovah, when a king shall reign in righteousness and princes shall rule in judgment, Jehovah (yet Man) the judge, Jehovah the lawgiver, Jehovah the king, when the inhabitants of His land shall not say, I am sick, for the people dwelling therein shall be forgiven their iniquity. Yea, the wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice even with joy and singing: the glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon. And no wonder: for they shall see the glory of Jehovah, the excellency of our God. And Jehovah will answer the heavens, and they the earth; and the earth the corn and the wine and the oil; and they Jezreel. And Jehovah will sow her to Him in the land, and will have mercy on her that had not obtained mercy, and will say to Lo-Ammi [not My-people], My-people thou, and they shall say, My-God.
But now the Holy Spirit, sent from heaven, is bearing witness to the church in one way, to the world in another. Christ is not ruling, as He will in power and glory during the age to come. It is the present evil age, out of which Christ, having given Himself for our sins, is delivering us who believe and constituting us members of His body for heavenly glory. We shall be displayed with Him on high when that day dawns on the earth. Thus, being called into God's marvellous light, it is our privilege to have the mind of Christ, and judge all things according to God in this scene of confusion.
Hence the lowly brother can glory in his elevation, for the glorified Christ is not ashamed to call him brother; and the rich one can glory in his humiliation, in fellowship with Him Who emptied and humbled Himself to the death of the cross. Whatever our natural place, we are now by grace not of the world as Christ is not. Thus we are enabled to read glory in the humblest believer; the wealthy and honourable can write nothingness on what the flesh values highly. For indeed as the Lord said, That which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God (Luk_16:15). Truly and beautifully is the evanescence of all that men think great and stable, here compared to the fleeting bloom of grass, put in the past tense of transiency: as the Lord put his case who abides not in Him (Joh_15:6). So certain is the passing away of that which flows not from life in Him. As flower of grass perishes before the scorching heat of the sun, "thus also will the rich one fade in his goings." What is surer, or sooner forgotten?
From this parenthetical comparison in vers. 9-11 we return to a kind of summary of the previous exhortation; and happy is pronounced a men who endures trial. So it was with men of marked faith of old, Job, Abraham, David, and the prophets; so it is now for every believer, and made plain by Him Who endured more than all, and as He alone could. And what an encouragement in the path of trial for him whom grace has called! "Because, having been put to proof [or approved], he shall receive the crown of life, which He promised to those that love Him." Faith receives the word of God that reveals God's holy love in giving us a divine Saviour Who died for our sins; and we love Him Who first loved us; but also how sweet while pilgrims and strangers to have so cheering a promise in the trial we endure! The new nature is exercised in trial and drawn out in its affections by God's love, and becomes more conversant with the things above and the coming glory.
There is another class of trials, with which souls are everywhere conversant in Christendom, even though they know but little of the blessed ones, which our Epistle heretofore has brought before us. It is ridiculous to deny the evident distinction. How could it be said, Count it all joy, when ye fall into various temptations in the form of inward lusts? or, blessed is the man that endures solicitations to evil from his corrupt nature? We have already seen that thus far the trials are from without. Our Lord knew then not only as do others, His saints, but beyond any, as we hear not only in the three earlier Gospels, but in Heb_2:18; Heb_4:15, where it is expressly treated for our consolation, yet with the all-important reserve, "apart from sin." He was tempted in all things in like manner, without sin, not without sins or sinning, but sin excepted. Of sinful temptation He knew nothing, for in Him was no sin. His nature as born of Mary was holy. It was so constituted from the womb; and therefore it was said by the angel Gabriel, "The holy thing which shall be born shall be called the Son of God."
But the believer, though born of God, has another principle - what the apostle calls "the flesh," which is not subject to the law of God, for neither can it be. Its mind is enmity against God. Not that the Christian is excusable if he allow it to act, now that he has a new life, and the Holy Spirit also given to dwell in him expressly that he may in no way fulfil flesh's lust but oppose it, and not do the things which he naturally desires. For "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control: against such things there is no law. But they that are of Christ Jesus crucified the flesh with its passions and its lusts."
From this, our naturally deplorable state, the person of our Lord Jesus was wholly exempt. He was the Holy One of God. Even the demons owned Him thus, though men are not wanting who have dared to blaspheme His moral glory by imputing to Him the same fallen nature with its proclivities as we have. And such as thus lower His person are only too consistent with that fundamental error by obscuring or even annulling the true sense and power of His atonement, thus in their ignorance and unbelief humanising alike His person and His work. It is the working of the antichrist, of which we have heard that it comes, and now it is already in the world; nor is any error more dishonouring to God or more deadly to man. It is the more dangerous because with it is often mingled a good deal of truth apparently in advance of what is commonly known, which some perceiving are enticed to accept the error. But no lie is of the truth; and no lie more sure or evil than that which denies the Christ, the Son of God.
It is blessedly true that Christ died to sin once for all; but this was not for Himself but for us who had sin in the flesh. To teach that Christ could say till the resurrection, Not I but sin that dwelleth in me, is apostasy from the truth, and is Satan's enmity to it, in order to degrade His person and to exalt ours; also to insinuate that sin in the flesh was conquered in Him as it may be in us, instead of being condemned in Him made sin. Never therefore is it, nor could it be, said, that the Lord mortified His members that were on the earth, never that He reckoned Himself dead to sin and alive to God. Precious as all this or more is for the Christian, it would be to the last degree false and derogatory to Him Who knew no sin but was made sin for us.
The Epistle then turns from our holy trials to our unholy ones, and shows their source to be, not in God, but in sinful man. "Let none when tempted say, I am tempted of God; for God cannot be tempted by evils, and himself tempteth none. But each is tempted when by his own lust drawn away and enticed; then lust having conceived bringeth forth sin; and sin when completed giveth birth to death" (vers. 13-15).
The distinctness is evident when we read on the one hand that God tempted or tried Abraham (Gen_22:1, and Heb_11:17), and on the other that Israel tempted God (Psa_78:18; Psa_78:41; Psa_78:56, compared with Exo_17:7). Never does God tempt any one to evil, but He may and does so bring out their faith and fidelity; but it is alas! too sadly common for His people to tempt Him by doubts of His mercy and active care. Hence the word in Deut. 6 16, "Ye shall not tempt Jehovah your God," the Lord's answer to the devil suggesting that He should cast Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple on the strength of Psa_91:11. But the Lord utterly refuses to test God, as if His protection were doubtful in the path of obedience. God is not to be tempted by evils, any more than He so tempts.
The evil temptation comes from within man, though Satan may act on him, for he ever evilly tempts to evil. So it was man at the beginning was tempted when his nature was not evil; but instead of repelling it as the Lord did, he allowed and received it; so that henceforth the race was contaminated like its fallen head. The precise contrast is seen in Christ, to Whom the prince of the world came at the end, and had nothing in Him then any more than when first tempted. But it is wholly different with us, conceived in sin and shapen in iniquity as we are naturally, though now by grace born anew. Therefore have we an altogether distinct class and character of temptation, which the Lord had not, as incompatible with His person as with His work. In Him was no lusting against the Spirit, no contrariety in Him, because He was, as no one else could be, the Holy One of God. The Word became flesh (Joh_1:14). Incarnation was true of Him, but of Him alone. But the believer, though having life in the Son, has the fallen nature, and hence is liable to evil temptation.
"But each is tempted when by his own lust drawn away and enticed." The Lord though tempted in all points similarly could not be in this way, because it would have denied and destroyed His moral glory, and it would have frustrated the purpose of God in saving us to His glory. That the Lord was in like manner tempted in all things has this immense limitation, "sin excepted," not sinning only in fact, which is true of course, but "sin" in the nature from which He was absolutely exempt He had not and could not have such evil temptations from a corrupt nature, because His was expressly holy. There was no lust of His own to draw away or allure. Evil suggestion from without He therefore uniformly rejected with indignation, even if an honoured apostle, shocked at the suffering before Him as inconsistent to his mind and feeling with His glory, repudiated His death and such a death as an impossibility, and received rebuke stern beyond example. With the believer too often is it likewise, when like Peter his mind is not on the things of God but on those of men. Christ sought His Father's glory, and unrighteousness was not in Him, but He did always the things pleasing to Him. Self-will there was none. He was come to do God's will, and did it perfectly and at all cost.
Far different is the saint when thus off his guard and ceasing ever so little from dependence on God. "Then lust, having conceived, bringeth forth sin; and sin, when completed, giveth birth to death." How graphic and true! But it is the strict line of James who looks at the moral effects," and does not occupy himself or the reader with that deep sounding of "causes" which we find in the Epistles of Paul. It is scarce needed to say that both views are invaluable, and alike given by inspiration.
There is no small danger of error on the subject of man's nature as it is, and the new nature which the believer receives by grace. Mistakes abound to this day, as they ever have since very early days. How many speak of the original Adamic state as holy? It was merely one of innocence, which was lost at the fall irrecoverably. Through the word applied by the Spirit in the faith of Christ we become partakers of a divine nature. It is not restoration to the primeval creature estate, but an incomparably better life in Christ the Son of God, the ground of fellowship with the Father and the Son, and of a holy walk with God. Christ Himself and alone was the manifestation of this eternal life on earth; and chosen witnesses were given to see and hear and come into the closest contact with Him, and enabled to bear witness by inspiration that we too might have fellowship with them. Never was there such intimacy, never such testing, never such scrutiny, that we might behold and know life eternal in every variety of circumstances, in the simplest as well as the most profound here below; and this is the life we have in Him.
But while we have in Christ an incomparably higher and sure standing, there is the effect of the fall in our old nature which abides for the present life with its lusts which Adam innocent had not. It is not a change merely, but a new life never possessed before. The disciples were born of water and the Spirit; and what is so born is "spirit," not flesh improved, changed, or annihilated. They were purged already because of the word which Christ had spoken to them before the gift of the Holy Ghost in power at Pentecost. The heart is purified by faith, yet there is a new life, life eternal, given in Christ; and there is progress and growth through the truth. But besides, we are in Christ, and freed from all condemnation, as we are purged by His blood from our sins once for all. Our being perfected in perpetuity (Heb. 10) is true of all Christians, as it is by His one offering in Whom and in which we believe. The notion of an attained state where no lusts work for a few superior souls is a mere delusion; it is the real unholiness of denying sin in them and excusing evil because the will does not consent. The apostles Paul and John are no less opposed to the dream than James, though he is occupied with the process and result, rather than with its origin and spring as they.
"Do not err, my beloved brethren. Every good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation nor shadow of turning. Having purposed He begot us by the word of truth, that we should be a certain first-fruits of his creatures" (vers. 16-18).
Men's thoughts being so far from the truth, as it is a subject altogether beyond his mind, we are the more bound to see that we be not misled, but subject to scripture. Here there is no obscurity, but all is light; for God is light, and His love has communicated all that we need to know. As man's nature is defiled and sinful, the God (Whom we know by faith and with Whom grace has given us the nearest relationship) is good. He cannot be tempted by evil and tempts none in this way. He is so absolutely good that our Lord laid down that none is good save one, God: not of course as Himself disclaiming it if owned as God, but refusing it from him who saw no more than humanity in Him.
But God is much more; He is the source of all good. He gives freely and fully to those who were evil and enemies. So we are here told that "every good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights." In Him is no darkness at all; in the world it is so dense that, though Christ His Son was here, the true Light, and shining in the darkness, the darkness comprehended it not: so much did moral darkness exceed the natural which is dispelled by natural light. It is humbling that man, with all his boasting, should be proved thus evil. But Christ solved the difficulty, the giver of a life in Himself risen from the dead, after being made sin to annul it righteously. Thus of His will or purpose (for nothing was more remote from man or more opposed to his will) did God beget us.
There is another consideration added, full of comfort. The greater the blessing, the more is the sorrow if it be exposed to loss or change. Now in our relationship with God we are assured that the goodness displayed suffers no diminution, nor eclipse. Even the greater light that rules the day, which men adored early and long, the bright orb of the sun to which they applied the epithet here predicated of our God, is liable to the variations of nature all day long, and is the salient example, in its apparent motions, of shadow that is cast by turning. But it is not so, as here declared, with the Father of lights, Whose unchangeableness is as perfect as His goodness, and His goodness to us who deserved nothing less, still in our weakness, and still in a world of evil.
But His purpose is to have the world governed righteously. This cannot be according to God till His Son, the Lord Jesus come forth to make good the kingdom, the world-kingdom in power and glory; as He has already vindicated His God and Father in obedience and suffering that He might save to the uttermost. Of this the Old Testament prophets have spoken amply, and the New Testament reiterates the truth in all plainness of speech, as it shows also the more distant and glorious vista, when all evil shall be done away and the new heavens and a new earth shall be, not in measure and pledge only, but in fulness. For government shall yield to everlasting righteousness dwelling in unbreakable peace, after all judgment is executed by Him to Whom it is given. Of this we are a certain first-fruits already, for we are begotten by the word of truth, and this nature is holy. But there is another which we ought never to ignore, and which, if not judged, breaks out into sins; so that, till we are changed at Christ's coming, we can only be called "a certain first-fruits." We follow Christ's steps and ought to walk as He walked; but we shall be like Him when we see Him as He is.
The critical correction which opens verse 19 rests not only on excellent authority, but on internal evidence of no small weight; while the common reading followed by the A.V. seems a rather obvious change of transcribers who failed to apprehend the force of the verb here.
"Ye know [it], my brethren beloved; but let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for man's wrath worketh not God's righteousness" (vers. 19, 20).
It is characteristic of Christianity to know not only the privileges and experience of saints but the depths of God, as we are told in 1Co_2:10, and not simply as revealed objectively, but in inward spiritual consciousness, as being born of God and thus having a new nature derived of Him. Of this we were fully told in the verse before; and, as knowing it, we have important consequences now urged on us. It is not that saints of old were destitute of that nature, as answering to faith which is the ground of all divine affections and of everything that pleases God in holy conduct. But it would be difficult to find, throughout the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, so simple an enunciation of it as our Epistle lays down; and this not as a novel communication to those addressed, but as a truth so known to them that there was no need of enforcing the fact or enlarging on its importance. We are therefore led at once to weighty practical results.
Others were given to set forth the work of redemption in Christ, or His personal glory, which are outside the believer and of all moment for purging the conscience and filling the heart. But it was the place of James writing to those peculiarly liable to be content with objects of sight only, to instruct in that interior dealing with the heart which is no less essential to the Christian, and secured to faith, both by a life given in Christ and by the gift of the Holy Spirit consequent on His blood-shedding and ascension. Here James had taught them in the clearest terms, that of His own purpose God gave us birth by the word of truth. So in the Fourth Gospel the apostle told us that "as many as received Him (Christ), to them gave He title to become children of God, even to them that believe on His name: who were born, not of blood nor of flesh's will, nor of man's will, but of God." It is inexcusable to mistake so plain an intimation, or (if seen) to lower its importance. The believer has already this new life, knows it, and is called to manifest it accordingly. Christianity is not only the revelation of a Lord and Saviour not less truly divine than the Father, but this inseparably from a new nature now imparted to the believer, who is responsible to walk suitably in the practical exercise of that life.
The exhortation therefore here is: "let every man be swift to hear." Christ Himself is the model of this, as of all else that is good. Though the Holy One of God, never was any so swift to hear God's word. So the prophet distinguished Him, "The Lord Jehovah hath given me the tongue of them that are taught, that I should know how to speak a word to him that is weary. He wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as they that are taught. The Lord Jehovah hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away backward." Nor was it, otherwise with His bearing in presence of the tempter: the word of God was His constant resource, and only the more if Satan perverted it. "It is written again" was His lowly God-honouring answer. And so it is, and has ever been, with His sheep. They hear His voice, and follow Him; they know not the voice of strangers.
The word of truth abides in its value. By it they were begotten of God; by it the new life is fed, formed, directed, and strengthened. All the written word is prized as well as authoritative; but for special instructions God has been pleased to furnish those communications we call the New Testament. If we rightly heed all scripture, we assuredly shall welcome every word that explains the new life and its duties, and His glory and grace Who is its spring and fulness.
But we are told also to be "slow to speak." For we have another nature which is self-confident and impulsive; and there do we need to be on our guard, that, knowing ourselves weak, ignorant, and naturally prone to evil, we may look up to God and wait dependently on Him. As born of Him, it is ours to be jealous that we may neither misrepresent nor grieve Him. And therefore are we warned of another danger, when it is added "slow to wrath." How often it is impotent and hasty self-will! We are now sanctified to do His will, to obey as Christ obeyed. There is of course a right occasion for wrath. So the Lord looked round about on those that misused the sabbath to oppose God's grace in an evil world. But we are exhorted to be slow to wrath, and to let it soon be over. "Be ye angry and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath; neither give place to the devil" (Eph_4:26-27).
A weighty reason is added which calls for explanation, because the similarity of phrase might lead the hasty to confound it with the well known but little understood language of the apostle Paul. The two writers can only be rightly appreciated by giving due weight to their respective aims. In Romans and elsewhere in that apostle's writings, it is God's consistency with what is due to Christ's work in redemption. God therefore justifies him that believes in Jesus according to the value of His atoneing death in His sight; and so we are made (or become) that righteousness in Him risen and ascended. But James is occupied with our practical ways in consistency with God's sovereign will in begetting us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruit of His creatures. And He looks for conduct according to that new nature He has given us by faith. Submissiveness of heart becomes us in hearkening to Him, and in avoiding our natural haste of speech and proneness to wrath; for, he adds, man's wrath worketh not God's righteousness. It is practical, not our standing according to Christ's work as in Paul's epistles; and it recalls our Lord in Mat_6:33, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness." This again is not our standing in Christ by virtue of God's righteousness, but the power of His kingdom and character in our souls and ways.
Conduct is bound to be according to relationship; and this flows from what God our Father has already formed by the acting of His own purpose and mind in giving us birth by the word of truth; a fact which it was the more important to press on saints who were used to take their stand on being sprung from Abraham as their father. They were now taught how much higher and holier was the new descent; and this not only from God but in the most blessed way which gave full place to the Son as well as the Spirit, and had its title-deed indisputable in the written word. So the Lord had Himself laid down to the Jews, "If ye abide in My word, ye are truly My disciples; and ye shall know the truth; and the truth shall make you free If therefore the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed." How little do souls, that loudly boast of their liberty, suspect that they are bondmen of sin and thus in Satan's chains! Even the believers, whom Christ has set free, are but a kind of first-fruits with an evil nature in no way set aside as a fact by the new nature which is ours through the word and Spirit of God. In virtue of this we have by grace to judge and refuse every working of the old nature, living on the Living Bread whereof we have eaten, yea, eating His flesh and drinking His blood, and so living not merely by reason, but on account, of Him, as He did when here below on account of the Father. No character of life for purity can compare with that which the word of truth conveys. How different and inferior is the being of blood or of flesh's will or of man's will, which we once sadly knew, as our only experience, and still know to be productive, if allowed, only of evil, even since we were born of God!
But it is not enough, though it be much every way, to be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath. The exhortation follows definitely against imminent dangers. "Wherefore, having laid aside every sort of filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save your souls. But be word-doers, and not hearers only, deluding yourselves" (vers. 21, 22).
It is well to take note of the aorist in ver. 21, as compared with the present in ver. 22: in the last a constant continuous call, in the former acts done once for all. Pollution might be, as the apostle tells us in 2Co_7:1, of spirit no less than of flesh, and the more ensnaring because more subtle. But the call is to have once for all put every kind of filthiness away, as also of that rank growth of wickedness which. is inherent in fallen nature. It would be indeed a hopeless call if we had not a new Life in Christ; but this every believer possesses, and the Holy Spirit's indwelling to work suitably to Him Who is its source, fulness, and standard. The flesh is still there; but in the cross of Christ it has already received its condemnation in Him Who was the one and efficacious offering for sin (Rom_8:3). Thus there is no excuse for the believer allowing its evil working in himself or others: God condemned it fully when Christ thus suffered, that we might have even now this immerse comfort for faith as a settled thing.
"The word of truth," which first reached us when under the dominion of the falsehood of sin and Satan, and delivered us through faith in Christ and His mighty work, is spoken of also as "the implanted word" which we are told to receive as an accomplished act. It is in contrast with a merely external rule that could only condemn what was opposed to itself. It works inwardly in that life which the believer has, being perfectly akin to it and congenial with it, as both are of God. Hence there is nothing strange in the call; and the call is to receive it "with meekness," as becomes those who have already tasted that the Lord is good, and desire to profit more and more. For indeed only that word is "able to save our souls" (compare the end of 1 Peter 1, and the beginning of 1 Peter 2). The God who began so gracious a work does not forget or relinquish His care. He exercises and disciplines our souls, He spares no fault; but He has proved fully in Christ that those whom He loved that were in the world He loved unto the end. Still He works not by rites or forms, but by our faith in His word (compare 1Pe_1:5). We are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
But as this exceeding value of God's word is capable of being abused into a school of dogma, and consequently of mere knowledge, the next verse summons us habitually to reduce the word to practice. "But be word-doers, and not hearers only, deluding yourselves." This is the great business of every day. Our Lord had already enforced His most solemn warning against the same self-delusion. "Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of the heavens; but he that doeth the will of my Father that is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name cast out demons, and in thy name done works of power? And then will I avow unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work lawlessness" (Mat_7:21-23). The word must not only be heard but produce fruit accordingly. To hear the Son is the urgent call of the Father, but it is to form the new life in obedience; otherwise it is to mock God and delude ourselves. And hence the grave caution here.
Reality is indispensable. It was so of old and always; much more is it now due to God, who has done such great things for us in Christ. Begotten of God with the word of truth, we are called to walk accordingly. The higher or holier the speech, if it go no farther, the more are we self-condemned and inexcusably guilty. Life is given to the believer for exercise in every way pleasing to God.
"Because if any one be a word-hearer, and not a doer, he is like a man considering his natural face in a mirror; for he considered himself and is gone away, and straightway forgot of what sort he was" (vers. 23, 24).
It is a privilege of no small value to have the word, which is of God; and as it was that which revealed Him in Christ to the soul, so also it was made the means of quickening. It therefore is the appropriate nourishment of the life that was given, as the Holy Spirit used it thus efficaciously. So He does to the end, making us know that the Trinity is no mere idea nor objective dogma, but a living truth in active operation day by day for those who believe. Hence conscience is continually exercised; for we have another nature, not only human but fallen and prone to evil, as previous verses in this chapter fully notice; and we pass through a world which is wholly opposed to God and His glory, having already been tested from the beginning and proving its enmity by crucifying the Lord of glory. Inwardly and outwardly therefore is the most real danger, especially when we take account of a subtle and sleepless power of evil, one who secretly avails himself of every means to compromise the saint and draw him into the dishonour of the Lord.
Nor is there any way more perilous than ensnaring the believers into a merely formal reading of the revealed word. For the conscience may be satisfied that the word is heard, while the heart is unmoved; and thus all becomes powerless. Yet therein God has communicated the most solemn truths, and of the nearest interest to Himself as well as to us; so that reading them there perfunctorily inflicts deep moral loss on the soul, and leads into a hardened state that lays one open to a thousand snares.
Therefore does our epistle urge us to be not hearers of the word only, but doers, comparing him who is a mere hearer to a man considering in a mirror "the face of his birth," as it literally runs. For, it is added, he considered himself and is gone away, and straightway forgot of what sort he was. A similar warning, we have seen, had the Lord given in the close of what is called the sermon on the mount, as it is indeed not only for all that turn away from what they hear for the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, but expressly for such professors of His name as content themselves with reading or hearing His good word, which is able to make wise unto salvation. Life is not only receptive but energetic; it is holy and works by love, for it is inseparable from the Son of God, Whose words are profitable indeed: "they are spirit, and they are life," as He has told us. So also had He said, "That which is born of the Spirit, is spirit." This no external institution, however important, can possibly effect; nothing but a divine person giving the soul to believe the word and Him who made it known.
Thus is the truth kept sure and safe on all sides, without room for superstition or fanaticism. For the Holy Spirit ever employs the word which witnesses to Christ and His work, and thus brings into communion with God; and as one is thus born of God, so does he grow and work practically. Where only the mind is reached or the affections, it is no more than a sight of the natural face in a mirror. There is no abiding self-judgment, no going out after Christ, no delight in God's will intimated in His word. It was seen for a moment but forgotten.
Approaching the close of this contrast which verse 22 began, we have a phrase of much and weighty import, which lets us into, or at least flows consistently with, the truth here insisted on, especially and expressly in verse 18. The law given by Moses was in no way a law of liberty but of bondage. It forbade and condemned the transgressions to which the flesh was prone. The curb it applied to man's will provoked the old man, and the offence consequently abounded instead of diminishing. The law therefore could not but work out wrath; as it is the strength of sin, not of holiness.
But here the Spirit of God presents, as the gift of God's will and grace, the new nature which characterises the faithful, the effect of God's giving birth to His own by word of truth. Christ, as we know from elsewhere, is this life, which he has who believes in Him. And this life, as in Him so in His, shows itself in obedience as its primary action. "What shall I do, Lord?" is the ready answer of the quickened soul to the revelation of "I am Jesus of Nazareth." We are sanctified to obedience no less than to the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus. The word of God has His authority over us; and feeling our ignorance and the goodness of His word, we prize and welcome all that He gives to direct our way. And the indwelling Spirit of God, glorifying the Lord Jesus, is our power, now that we confess Him Lord and own Him as the Son of God, resting on His redemption and beholding Him on high.
Hence the word of truth, by which God begot us, is also our divine directory, and is here designated "a perfect law, that of liberty," exercising faith and effecting obedience by grace. For those that are thus called by the gospel are made conscious of their new and holy relationship to God, as the Spirit of adoption gives them to cry, Abba, Father. Christ was the perfect expression of God, as well as perfect example of man; and He, being our life, as well as righteousness from God and before God, forms us here below accordingly. Begotten by the word, we have a new nature which loves the word as well as God Himself; and thus we in virtue of it wish to do what He wills, as communicated in His word, now fully revealed. "As the living Father sent me, and I live on account of the Father, he too that eateth me shall live on account of me" (Joh_6:57): how blessed, elevating and mighty the motive. May it be ours who follow Him!
"But he that closely looked into perfect law, that of liberty, and abode close," as living faith achieves, "being not a quite forgetful hearer but a work-doer, he shall be blessed in his doing" (ver. 25). He has a nature in accord with the word which communicated it to his soul. It is not a law from without that forbids what he likes and demands what is irksome. He knows God's love inwardly, and finds His word enjoins what the life he professes takes pleasure in. He delights in obeying God; and this is just what the word points out, what to do and how to do it, with Christ revealed Whose light shines and Whose love cheers and strengthens him. And thus it is the "law of liberty." His heart purified by faith not only accepts but rejoices in the will of God - His good and acceptable and perfect will. This we behold in its untainted and unfailing fulness in our Lord Jesus. He that keeps His word, in him verily is the love of God perfected. And as there is no fear in love, so neither is there bondage therein; yet no chains are so mighty as its silken cords. The one obedient is accordingly blessed, not in his end only but in his ways - blessed in his doing. A real and great and vital truth it is, that Christ deigns to be our way by faith in a wilderness world where is no way. Only the eye single to Him can see that way; but God is as faithful in this as in all else to the soul that is true to Christ's word and name.
Certainly the believer is not said to be blessed for his doing, but in it. The true light already shines; as it did perfectly in Christ when here, so now the Holy Spirit effects this in those begotten of God. He will have reality, now that the day of shadows and forms is past, grace and truth having come through Jesus Christ. If He is not here to maintain all, the Holy Spirit is sent forth and abides for this express purpose to the glory of Christ. No doubt, it is a day of knowing what God has revealed, and He has revealed nothing more fully than Himself in His Son. But it is a day of obedience for the faithful, no less than of life and peace, and of fellowship with the Father and the Son. Knowledge without obedience is a sad and shameful reproach. "If ye know these things," said the Saviour, "happy are ye if ye do them."
But there is another way in which we may glorify God, or do Him great dishonour; not by our activity but by our speech. For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. As our Lord added, "The good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things; and the wicked man out of the wicked treasure bringeth forth wicked things. But I say unto you, that every idle word which men shall say, they shall render an account of it in judgment-day; for by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words shalt thou be condemned" (Mat_12:35-37). On scarce anything are men, and even Christians, more distant practically from the mind of God than on the use and in the licence claimed for the tongue. On the other hand who does not know the dead and gloomy and resentful silence when the name of the Lord Jesus is brought into any general company? It matters not how reverent be the spirit in which it is uttered, or how apt the application, or how necessary and conclusive for the truth's sake: man cannot forgive it. The name is inopportune save from a pulpit; it is an offence to the world, high or low, which cast Him out and crucified Him. Notwithstanding the desperate effort to make out that all is changed for so many ages, and that the adornment of the tomb, the picture, or the sculptor, proves the heart's homage in our day, the implacable enmity underneath does not fail to betray itself; and God is not deceived by a vain show. With the heart it is believed unto righteousness, and with mouth confession is made unto salvation. God will have His Son honoured as Himself where He was rejected; and those who honour Him by hearing His words and believing Him Who sent Him have life eternal; while those who disbelieve Him must perish, their ways being as bad as their words to His dishonour.
The same principle applies all through "If anyone thinks he is religious, not bridling his tongue but deceiving his heart, this [man's] religion is vain" (ver. 26). The word "religious" here used refers to the manifestation. It is neither εὐσεβὴς pious or godly; nor is it λατρεύων rendering a religious service or worship to God. It means religious practice outwardly paid. Compare Act_26:5; Col_2:18; Col_2:23.
Again, the form is hardly "seemeth" but "deemeth," or "thinketh himself." It is not what appears to others that is in question, but his thought of himself. Wiclif and the Rhemish are right, following the Vulgate; Tyndale misled Cranmer, the Geneva V. and the Authorised, The very fact that it is not deeds but only the indulgence of speech gives occasion to self-deception. But he who calls on the Lord's name is bound to follow His steps, and not to misrepresent Him, Who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth; Who, reviled, reviled not again, and, suffering, threatened not. On the contrary as He was fairer than the sons of men, so grace was poured into His lips: therefore God blessed Him for ever. But each of us has imperative need to "bridle his tongue "; for we have an old man which was wholly absent from Him. If we do not, the evil of fallen nature finds a ready exit there; which, if we fail to judge, deceives the heart. And this man's religion is as vain as his is faithful who abides close to the perfect law of liberty.
The verse before us concludes this part of the Epistle. As the preceding one denied the weight or value of practical outward service, where an unbridled tongue betrayed a heart outside God's presence, here we have a sample set forth positively. It is in danger of being overlooked; yet this cannot be because the sight is infrequent in this world of sin and sorrow, of want and bereavement, where gracious sympathy does much to bind up and together wounded hearts. "Who is my neighbour?" said a lawyer who had no care to see one.
"A religious service pure and undefiled before him that is * God and Father is this, to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, to keep himself unspotted from the world" (ver. 27).
* There is ancient and excellent authority p.m. K L and more than 50 cursives, etc., for omitting the article, which would give a characteristic force, "before a God and Father." In either case "our" goes too far.
Wiclif has it thus: - "This is a clene religioun and unwemmyd anentis God and the fadir, for to visite pupilles, that is, fadirles or modirles, or bothe, and widewes in her tribulacioun, and for to kepe him silf undefoulid fro this world." The Wiclifite gives, "A clene religioun and an vnwemmed anentis God and the fadir, is this, to visite fadirles and modirles children, and widewis in her tribulacioun, and to kepe hym silf vndefoulid fro this world." "Pure devocion and vndefiled (says Tyndale) before God the father, is this: to vysit the frendlesse and widdowes in their adversite, and to kepe him silfe vnspotted of the worlde." Cranmer and the Genevese V. follow Tyndale save the latter in the word "religion" for "devocion," and for "frendlesse" both giving "fatherlesse." That of Rheims has, "Religion cleane and vnspotted with God and the Father, is this, to visite pupilles and vvidovves in their tribulation; and to keepe him self vnspotted from this vvorld."
There is often an exaggeration lent to these wholesome words, as if such duties as are here enjoined, or even the first part without the second, constituted the substance of "religion." The absence of the article here too is not without meaning, especially as it was prefixed to the same word only in the verse before. "The religion," or the religious service, of the man there described is vain. Here its absence indicates that it is but a part of it, however weighty and becoming. For we have to do with God, not only as the patriarchs knew Him (an Almighty protector in their weakness), nor yet again as the Lord Jehovah of Israel (the moral governor of a people called to do His commandments), but as the Lord Jesus revealed Him, and as He alone perfectly enjoyed the relationship of Father. It is here that we find the richest display of love in the nearest way possible for the creature to know God. And this is quite in keeping with what the Epistle had already explained, the communication of a life to the believer capable of entering into His thoughts and affections, and of obeying His will as being begotten thereby.
It is a service then pure and undefiled before Him Who is God and Father, to look after the fatherless and widows. Compassionate love is thus drawn out. It is indeed in its measure the reflection of God's own character.
So the Lord called him, who would give a dinner or supper, to ask not relatives nor the rich but the poor and wretched, assured of blessing all the more because they could not recompense him; but this too will come in the resurrection of the righteous. Our Epistle pursues its given line of blessing now in the doing or practice.
But the latter clause benevolence cannot imitate; and one finds it generally drops. Yet is it an exhortation eminently christian, and essential to spiritual well-being, "to keep himself unspotted from the world." Never do we hear any word quite as full in the O.T., though at all times God has in His own sought love, and piety, and holiness; and His children have walked in them all, because they walked in faith. It is the Lord Jesus Who has fully brought out what the world is. Its thankless departure from God, its ready forgetfulness of Him and His manifold and persevering goodness, its setting up of grand material objects, like the sun, moon, and stars, its adoption of departed heroes to adore, its degradation in worship by the invention of imaginary beings as bad as themselves, its bowing down to the most ordinary creatures of earth, air, or the waters, even to reptiles, did not constitute its worst guilt. Plato yearned after some superhuman being to come and enlighten and raise up the fallen race. But when the Father sent the Son, and (wondrous condescension!) in the reality of man while most truly God, hatred of good came out as it never did nor could before; and they rejected Him alike in His words and His works. It mattered not that these all were light and love, as He was. But they brought God in Christ's person the Holy and the True; and man would have none of Him: neither religious man, nor philosophical, nor political; Jew, Greek, Roman, despised and abhorred Him. As it was written beforehand, they hated Him without a cause, even those that had His law; they hated both the Son and the Father.
This is the world; and the great standing proof is the cross of Christ. Hence our Lord, looking on to it, declared His own not to be of the world, as He is not; not merely that they ought not to be, but that they are not. And the Epistles follow this up, when the Holy Spirit was given, with the utmost care for corresponding ways. Nor is there anything in which Christendom is more false and guilty than in seeking and courting it, and congratulating itself on possessing its countenance and its good things if it has them, or in coveting them when it has not. Popery is flagrant but not alone in this.
Yet there is the plain and holy call of God to every child of His, "to keep himself unspotted from the world." This cuts very closely indeed; and we do well to suffer the word of exhortation if any can help us to steer clear; for its spirit may enter in subtle ways. But let us look to Him, Who loves us and discerns perfectly, to work in us by His all-searching word; that we may be strengthened to judge it unsparingly, and thus to keep ourselves unspotted from the world.