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St. James, i. 21.
Wherefore lay apart all Jilthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive ivith meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.
In the verses, which go before my text, and which, together with that text, have been read to you as the Epistle for this morning's service, St. James had been establishing the fact of our total dependance on God ; the perfect freedom of His grace, in the work of redemption ; and the holiness of heart and life, which it was the object of that grace to produce in us. He then lays down, as a necessary consequence of these doctrines, certain practical rules for forwarding in ourselves the work of God's Spirit ; for the avoiding of every thing, whereby its course might be grieved, or hindered ; and for working out our own salvation, by the diligent use of
those means, which the Almighty has, in His mercy, afforded to us.
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" Every good gift, " he begins by assuring us, — " every good gift, and every perfect gift is from above ; and cometh down from the Father of lights ; with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." These expressions are, by the greater part of learned men, supposed to be intended as an answer to some strange and grievous errors, which, in the time of St. James, were very common, among both Jews and Heathen. As if a man's good or evil fortune in the world, and even the general character of his passions, temper, and disposition, were owing to certain effects of the stars ; which shone, at his birth, or at those times, when he undertook whatever business he was engaged in. And it is in opposition to this foolish doctrine, that St. James begins by ascribing every good and
every perfect gift whatever, not to these creatures of God, which His hand has formed, and which shine but by His decree, — but to God Himself, the Father of these and of every other light ; who does not, like these stars, move from one side of Heaven to the other ; sometimes eclipsed, sometimes setting, sometimes rising : — but " with whom is no variableness, or shadow of turning y" and on whose perfect love, unchangeable will, and Almighty and everlasting power we can, therefore, depend with entire and thankful confidence. " Of His own will," St. James continues, this great and good God
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" begat us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures." Here it is to be first observed, that, as the act of becoming a Christian by baptism and by the Holy Ghost, is, in Scripture, uniformly described as being born again ; so the act, whereby
God, through His grace, awakens our minds to a sense of our natural misery and corruption, and of His glorious promises in Jesus Christ, — to repentance, to faith, to conversion, is, in like manner, often compared to natural production : and the Almighty is said to have begotten those anew, whom He thus calls, from the darkness and slavery of a sinful world, to the blessed light and liberty of His children. Thus, we find in the first chapter of St. John's Gospel, the members of the Christian Church described as " the Sons of God ; " " which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. " And St. Paul speaks of those, whom he had himself brought to Christianity, even as if they had been his own children ; and calls Onesimus "his Son, whom he had begotten, " that is converted, " in his bonds. " l And we may thus easily understand, how it is that we are said to be " begotten of God by the Word of truth ; " — that is, that we have heard the Gospel, which He hath sent to
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us, and have not quenched in our heart that Spirit, whose power makes the outward preaching of the Gospel efficacious to our conversion.
But, further, it is said, that God has thus begotten, and renewed us, in order "that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures." Now there are three senses, in which these words may be understood ; and all of which it is highly probable, that St. James intended to convey : the first of which applies in an especial manner, to the case of those early Christians, whom he was, in the first instance, addressing ; while the two last are important to all believers alike, in whatever age of the world their pilgrimage may be appointed.
The first fruits of the Jewish Temple, to which the children of God are here compared,
were the earliest ripe ears of corn, the first grapes, and first olives, which their land every year produced ; and which were brought to the Altar, with grateful songs, and sound of trumpets, and of stringed instruments, in token, that the fruits of the earth were, all of them, Jehovah's bounty to man ; and that it was on Him alone that their hope of harvest depended. As being, first, then, in point of time, amid the harvest of faith and holiness, the first returns of that good seed, which the Lord had sown in the field of His heritage, the early Christians of St. James's
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days might well be called the first fruits of religion.
But, in another sense, all Christians are so ; since, as the first fruits were received with thankfulness, as being the promises and forerunners of the general harvest, so, inasmuch as the last and
universal resurrection of the dead, whether to honour or dishonour, is often spoken of in Scripture as the great harvest of Christ, when the wheat and tares shall be alike gathered, though to ends extremely different ; so is the change of heart, of hopes, of nature, which takes place, through the operation of God's Spirit, in all Christians, who are worthy of the name, not only a lively figure, and representation ; but, in some degree, an earnest assurance of this future and still greater change ; so that the resurrection from dead works to a life of grace, may be very fitly called the first fruits of the resurrection to life eternal.
Nor is this all ; there is yet another sense, in which the genuine Christian is called, by the word of God, to be, " a kind of first fruits of His creatures." The natural first fruits of the Israelitish harvest were, as we have seen, accounted holy to the Lord. They were offered on His Altar : they were consumed in His service ; and in the relief of the poor, the widow, and the fatherless ; and they, therefore, were thus, like7
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wise, a most fit representation of that Church, or society of faithful people whom God had called from an evil world to be His in duty and affection, in will, in word, and in deed ; that, by their bodies, and by their souls, and by all which they possess, they may contribute to His glory, and to the happiness of their fellow creatures.
It is thus, then, that St. James declares our absolute dependence on God, as the Giver of all good things ; and the manner in which, and the end to which He has sanctified us to Himself, through the Gospel of His Son. He now, with that remarkable attention to the duties of Christians, which is the peculiar distinction of his epistle, proceeds to instruct us in those virtues ; which are the natural and necessary consequences of a serious attention to the truths, which he had just delivered. " Wherefore," he
continues, " my beloved brethren! let every man be swift to hear ; slow to speak ; slow to wrath ; for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore, lay apart all hlthiness, and superfluity of naughtiness ; and receive with meekness the engrafted word which is able to save your souls."
As if he had said, " I have told you, that your good gifts, whether spiritual or worldly, are all bestowed on you ; not by your own exertions, far less by any fancied influence of the stars ; but by that great and unchangeable God, who
vol. i. x
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is the Maker of those heavenly lights ; and on whom they, as well as you, depend. I have told you, that it was of His own will, of His own free grace, that He has called you to the state of
Christian salvation ; to a regenerate life ; and to the hope, after death, of everlasting happiness ; and that He has thus called you to be, in your resurrection from sin here, types and tokens of the great resurrection hereafter ; that, in the mean time, you may be offered at His altar, and cheerfully given up to His service."
And, from all these truths, what are the lessons which follow ? Surely, that you should listen with eagerness to the sound of that Gospel, which is your charter and title deed to everlasting life ; and which teaches you, how best to perform those duties, which, in your regenerate state, are required of you. That, in order to learn the better, you should not be forward to teach others ; or to dispute with your brethren on the doctrines of your faith, or the terms of your Salvation. He, who is not "slow to speak," will have little time for hearing : he, who is given to dispute with others, will be in a very unfit state of mind to learn his own duty. The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God ; and the Christian, who is chiefly anxious
to prove his brother in the wrong, will seldom, very seldom, be in a fit temper of mind to profit by the Gospel of the meek and lowly Jesus.
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" Wherefore, lay aside all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness :" cast away from you whatever ministers to fleshly lusts, or to the pride of worldly power or wisdom : — strip yourselves of yourselves ; think less of your own merits, your own wisdom, your own peculiar opinions ; and receive with meek and teachable hearts, as men who seek for light in darkness, and enquire after knowledge with a real and painful sense of ignorance ; — receive, I say, that word of faith, which the Holy Ghost will then engraft into your natures ; and which, if you will but allow it its free course, and follow humbly and diligently where it leads, is able through the mercies of Christ, to save your souls, from death eternal.
This, as I conceive, is the true and instructive meaning of the present difficult passage : and from hence the following general truths may seem to follow. First, that it is of God's free grace that we are called, either to the knowledge of the Gospel, or to an effectual and lively faith in its truths. This we learn, when he tells us, that every good gift is from the Father of lights ; and that He has of His own will begotten us with the word of truth.
Secondly, that, nevertheless, this free grace is not irresistible ; that it may be rendered vain by our inattention, our self conceit, our disputations, and noisy controversy. Yea more ; that in order to make it effectual, there is much, on
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our side, to be done ; and that we must bring
with us teachable minds and gentle tempers ; in order that grace may find a proper soil to work on. Unless this were so, there would be no meaning in the caution, which follows, that every man should be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath ; since, if grace were irresistible, all these would be the natural and necessary effects of grace ; and by no means in our power either to neglect, or to cultivate. That would be a strange mockery, if a man were to cast us from a high tower ; and then bid us take care, to fall to the bottom : yet there is no difference between such a conduct, and that which the Calvinists ascribe to God, when they say, that — He first gives us grace, which effectually moves us to work His will ; and then commands us to do, what we are doing, and cannot help doing already. The truth is, and it is abundantly clear, as I conceive, at once from reason, and from Scripture, that the spiritual gifts of God may be fitly compared to the blessings, which He gives to the natural world ; — the rain, which causes the green blade to spring ; the sun, which mellows the soil, and ripens the
fruitful ear. Like the rain, and the sunshine, they are the free bounty of the Most High ; and, like them, they are the great and effectual causes of the grass, which giveth food to the cattle ; and the corn, which strengthened the
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heart of man. But, like the sunshine and the rain, they still leave much for the industry of man to do ; and, as the sunshine, and the rain, will not give us bread; unless we plough the land, and root out the weeds, and fence the field, and reap the corn, and stack, and thresh, and grind it ; so the grace, which God offers to us, can only increase our guilt and our damnation ; unless we cultivate our hearts, and weed out our evil thoughts, and shut out, so far as possible, all occasions of evil, and apply, by diligent exertion, our good principles to the purposes for which they were intended.
Thirdly, it is worth our while to notice, that it is by a diligence in learning our duty, that, in the first instance, St. James supposes, that we are to avail ourselves of God's gracious offers of salvation ; and that here, as elsewhere, he strongly discourages all religious gossip ; and, still more, all angry and disputatious tempers. " Let every man be swift to hear ; slow to speak ; slow to wrath." Now, here, I need hardly remind you of the mischief, which has been done to real Christianity, by men setting up as its teachers, not only without being called to that office by those Rulers of the Church, whom Christ has appointed; but, still more, when they have neither had the time to qualify themselves to speak on those mysteries, to do justice to which the studies, and prayers, of many years are not more
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than sufficient. But, it is in the real spirit of love to such persons as these, and it is in the solemn discharge of that duty, to which these words of St. James compel me, that I would intreat them to be very sure, that they understand the Gospel, before they pretend to preach it, or dispute about it ; and, in the words of the same apostle, not to be "many masters : knowing, that" such as rashly take that office on themselves " shall receive the greater damnation" — shall be judged, that is more severely for their faults, or failings, in proportion as they have professed to be lights to others ; and have attempted by wrathful censures, or by fierce disputations, to establish what they have, perhaps, mistakingly believed to be the " righteousness of God."
Fourthly, they may be still more led to religious prudence, in this particular, by attending to what St. James goes on to assure them, — namely, that this over forwardness and angry zeal in the service of God, is, in truth, very closely connected with sensual and worldly passions ; that it, for~ the most part, has its spring
in them ; and is a token of their prevalence in the unseen and deceitful heart of man, who is thus blinded as to his true condition. This is plain by the connection of my text with the verse, which goes before it ; in which, after having cautioned his disciples against the errors, which I have noticed, he, lastly, goes on to teach them,
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how best to avoid those errors, namely, by cutting out of the heart itself, that carnal and worldly temper, which leads men to think highly of themselves, and of their own qualifications : — "Wherefore, laying apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, receive with meekness the engrafted word."
It is, indeed, most certain, that, where the heart is meek, the conversation will never be positive, overbearing, or censorious ; — that, where the sinner is really convinced of his own necessi17
ties and ignorance, he will be always better pleased to learn from others, than himself to undertake the office of teacher : — that, where he feels his own weakness, his own sinfulness, his own total dependance on the mercies of the Most High, he will have little time, or inclination, to find fault with others ; or to cherish in his breast that wrath, which worketh not the righteousness of God.
Be humble then, my brethren ; be teachable ; be doubtful of yourselves ; and judge favourably of each other ; and, that you may do all this more effectually, prepare your hearts, by prayer, and by repentance, and by a deep and unaffected lowliness, to receive that degree of Heavenly light, which God may be pleased to pour on you ! Nor doubt, that the light so sought after, the truth so studied, the word so meekly received and so diligently engrafted in your hearts and memories,
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will be found able to save your souls. It is God's word ; — it will not return unto Him empty of its performance ; but it shall " take root downwards, and bear fruit upwards ;" and be, to those that believe, His great power unto Salvation !
Which that we may all seek, according to His word : and all find, as His word hath promised; may He grant to our prayers, for the sake, and through the merits, of His dear Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord !
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