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THE NECESSITY OF UNIVERSAL OBEDIENCE.
Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
James ii. 10.
7ERE I obliged to
give a title to this epistle, from which I have taken my text, to distinguish it from the other books of our sacred canon, I would call it the paradoxes of St. James. It should seem, the apostle had no other design in writing than that of surprizing his readers by unheard-of propositions. In the first chapter he subverts that notion of religion, which is generally received both in the world and the church. To adore the God of heaven and earth, to receive his revelation, to acknowledge his Messiah, to partake of his sacraments, to burn with zeal for his worship, this is usually called religion. No, says St. James, this is not religion; at most this is only a small part of it. Religion consists in visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and in keeping themselves unspotted from the world, ver. 27. In the second chapter he seems to take pains to efface the grand character of a christian, and of christianity itself, and to destroy this fundamental truth of the gospel, that man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law Rom. iii. 28. No,
says he, man is not justified by faith only; Abraham our father was justified by his works, chap. ii. 24. 21. and all christians are justified by works. In another place, St James seems to place all religion in some minute and comparatively inconsiderable articles, or, what comes to much the same, to teach, that the omission of some comparatively small duty renders the most pure and solid piety of no account. Levity of conversation is one of these articles. How different, my brethren! is the morality of the scriptures from the morality of the world. We often hear high encomiums of some people in company! Observe that man, say they, what a pattern of piety he is! The church doors are hardly opened before he rushes into his seat with eagerness and transport. In approaching the Lord's table he discovers by every look and gesture a heart all inflamed with divine love. When his shepherds were smitten, and the sheep scattered, the most difficult sacrifices became easy to him. Country, family, titles, riches, he left all with plea sure for the sake of following the bloody steps of Jesus Christ in his sufferings. He can be reproved for no more than one little inadvertence, that is, he has a levity of conversation. But what says St. James of this man, who seems to have a right of precedence in a catalogue of saints? What does he say of this man, so diligent to attend public worship, so fervent at the Lord's supper, so zealous for religion? He says, this man has no religion at all; If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, this man's religion is vain, chap. i. 26.
But without attending to all the paradoxes of St. James, lét us attend to this in our text. Here is a principle, that seems more likely to produce despair in our hearts than to promote virtue; a principle,
which seems to aim at no less than the exclusion of the greatest saints on earth from heaven, and to oblige Moses, Elias, David, Paul, and other such eminent men to exclaim, Who then can be saved ? Matt. xix. 25. This principle is, that to sin against one article of the divine laws is to render one's self guilty of a breach of them all. Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
That you may the better enter into the spirit of our text, we have three sorts of reflections to propose to you. By the first, we intend to fix the meaning of our apostle's proposition, and to clear it from all obscurity Our second class of reflections will be applied to enforce the sense, that we shall give the text. The last will characterize those sinners, who live in this dreadful state, who, by habitually offending in one point, render themselves guilty of an universal subversion of the whole law of God; and here we shall direct you how to use the text as a touchstone to discover the truth or falshood of your faith, the sincerity or hypocrisy of your obedience.
I. Let us fix the sense of our apostle's proposi tion, and for this purpose let us answer two ques tions. 1. What kind of sin had St. James in view when he said, whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point? 2. How did he mean, that, by offending in one point, the offender was guilty of violating the whole law?
The meaning of the first depends partly on what precedes the text. The apostle had been endeavoring to inspire christians with charity: not with that partial charity, which inclines us to pity and relieve the miseries of a few distressed neighbors: but with that universal love, which induces all the disciples
of Christ to consider one another as brethren, and which, because all are united to God, unites all to one another, and teacheth each to consider all as one compact body, of which love is the bond.
The apostle enters into this subject by this exhortation, My brethren! have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory, with respect of persons, chap. ii. 1. These words are rather difficult but one of the following senses, I think, must be given to them. 1. Instead of translating, have not the faith, we may read, judge not of faith by appearance of persons; that is to say, Do not judge what faith christians have in Jesus Christ whom God hath elevated to the highest glory, by the rank, which they occupy in civil society, by their attendants, and equipage, and habits. A man, who makes a very mean and contemptible appearance, a man all in rags is often a better christian than he, whose christianity, (so to speak,) is all set off with splendor, and grandeur, and fortune.
Or rather, have not faith in the Lord of glory by shewing a partial regard for the appearance of persons; that is to say, Do not imagine yourselves believers, while you regard the appearance of persons. Do not imagine, that true faith is compatible with that meanness of soul, which makes people susceptible of very deep impressions of esteem at seeing a parade of human grandeur; do not suppose, that the soul of a good man must necessarily prostrate itself before pomp, and annihilate itself in the presence of great men; while he turns with disdain from the poor, infinitely greater for their piety than others for their pomp. A christian believing in Jesus Christ glorified, a christian persuaded that Jesus, his head, is elevated to the highest degree of glory, and hoping that he shall be shortly exalted to some degree with him; a chris