Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
I. AN EXAMPLE OF VAIN RELIGIOUS SERVICE. (Ver. 26.) This statement points back to the exhortation of ver. 19. The tongue is an unruly member; it requires to be "held in with the bit and bridle" of Christian principle. A man's words are a true index or evidence of his character; and they also react upon that character, and tend to confirm it for good or evil. Should, therefore, a person who has been for many years a member of a Christian Church indulge always, without restraint, in evil-speaking; should he be in the habit of soiling his tongue with impure, or malicious, or false, or foolish words; what other conclusion can be drawn about his character than just that he is not a true Christian? Such a man is a "hearer only," and therefore either a self-deceiver or a hypocrite. He may cherish some of the sentiments and instincts of religion; but the most sublimated sentiment is quite worthless, if it cannot be translated into everyday life. Where there is no government of the tongue, what avails love for the Church and its services? "This man's religion is vain;" it is an idle, empty, useless, unreal thing - a counterfeit of genuine worship. The apostle's language here is exceedingly strong; but it is the language of inspiration, and it runs parallel with what we read in other parts of Scripture (Matthew 12:36, 37). Many professing Christians may well tremble when they read this verse. How prone we all are to sin with our lips! How constantly we are tempted to idle speaking! Let us guard against the sin of slander, of depreciating goodness, of imputing selfish motives; and against every other form of uncharitable speech. If we do not "keep our mouth with a bridle" (Psalm 39:1), we "deceive our hearts" as to our spiritual state before God; in which case there is danger that all our psalm-singing and sermon-hearing may only help to drag us down to a deeper perdition.
II. AN EXHIBITION OF TRUE RELIGIOUS SERVICE. (Ver. 27) James here submits a rubric for the ritual of the Church. It is to this effect, that the services which God loves are not ceremonial observances, but habits of purity and charity. The moral in our Church life is infinitely more important than the liturgic. Indeed, the moral and spiritual are the great end which our fellowship contemplates, and to that end rites and ceremonies are but the means.
1. The true ritual consists in the maintenance of personal purity in a world of sin. The Christian is a man who, having been once washed all over in the blood of atonement, must labor in the strength of God's Spirit to keep himself from fresh defilement, he is to guard himself against the contaminations of the world, its pursuits, ambitions, counsels, and its grosser pleasures. He must not become an ascetic or a hermit; rather, he is to show to his fellow-men that he can live in the world an unworldly life. It is hard to do so, doubtless; it requires rare moral courage to resist evil, and. to brave the contempt and persecution which such resistance entails. Yet this is the worship to which God calls us. He will not accept our "devotions" if we refuse him our devotion. A holy life is the most beautiful of psalms. It is the blossom and fruit of all other praise. It is grander than the finest cathedral service, for it is the perfect realization of the Divine ideal of worship.
2. The true ritual consists in the exercise of active benevolence in a world of suffering. Christ, when on earth, "went about doing good;" and every Christian is an imitator of Christ. "A doer that worketh" (ver. 25) finds his chief sphere of social activity in kindness to the poor and suffering. We are joined together in the fellowship of the gospel that we may be helpful to our fellow-Christians and our fellow-men who are in affliction and poverty. All our public worship is "vain" if no hearts are made happier, and no firesides warmer, because of it. The Church exists that its members may be inspired to become a fountain of spiritual sympathy to the widow, and a ministry of moral help to the orphan. A congregation can offer no comelier praise than the music of constant acts of loving-kindness and tenderness and self-sacrifice. Where this worship is not rendered, the grandest sanctuary, so called, will be rather only a sepulcher of souls, and the most aesthetic church-service a "vain oblation." The true gospel cultus lies in personal acts of sympathy and kindness, done to the poor out of love to Jesus, and because the poor are his "brethren (Matthew 25:34-40). Every professing Christian should therefore try the reality and strength of his piety by this test: Does he give himself to the celebration of the true full ritual of Christ's house - that which lies in a life of purity and charity? - C.J.
Pure religion and undefiled before God.
1. Well, first, does not there come to us a sense of its supreme beauty? It is told of one of the best men of our time — a man who specially exemplified the ideal of the text on both its sideshow, travelling with a party up the Nile, his character produced a profound impression on the Arab attendants, and when one said of him to the Sheik or leader of the party that in his own country he was regarded somewhat as a heretic, his reply was, "He may be called what you like, he may not be a good Christian; I know not; but this I know, he is a good man." Such was the impression a character like this produced upon a Mahomedan of the desert, and such is the impression of beauty and reverence which a religious life of the kind indicated in the text is calculated to produce in time upon any mind in which a trace of goodness still lingers.
2. And close upon this thought of the beauty of religion there comes to one, in looking at the text, another and a second thought — namely, the permanence and durability of religion. We cannot conceive of a time, except, perhaps, in the final break up of society, when goodness shall not be esteemed as the highest form of human life, when charity and stainlessnes of character shall not be reverenced as the noblest expression which life can take, and the highest level to which human perfection can rise. Men may fall away from that ideal, they may run amuck in selfishness and sensuality, but they will never cease in their hearts to reverence it, and after their madness is past to come back to it again.
3. Take a third thought that the text suggests. If this be religion, how very wrong we all are in the standard and criterion we often apply in our judgment of others. We laugh when we read of the child asking her parent whether such a person is an irreligious man, a bad man, because he does not hide his face in his hat at the beginning of divine service. But are we much better ourselves? Is not our test often equally false, if not equally silly? We ask whether a man can be religious who does not hold this belief, who does not belong to this or that church? I believe it is far better not to judge our neighbours in this matter at all, for we will likely be wrong; but if we are impelled to form an opinion, let us take the measuring standard of the text and apply it. There is religion. How do they stand in this matter? I fear if you were to go through our professed religious people with a measuring rod of this kind, many of them would fall very far short, and many of them would be out of the reckoning altogether. If any of you are to judge of a fruit-tree growing in your garden, what method will you take to do so? Will you bore holes into it, and see whether the sap is running, and whether the inner bark is green, or will you uncover the roots and see whether they have a firm hold, and whether they are rightly spread where the moisture lies; or will you take note of the fruit that it produces in autumn? The last way is the better way, whatever may be said in favour of the former methods; but that is not the way most men take in pronouncing an opinion as to whether a man is religious or not, and there are very few who do not think themselves perfectly qualified to sit in judgment.
4. Once more, does not the text give us an idea of a comprehensive, wide-spread Catholic Church? It was said of a distinguished ecclesiastic — the remembrance of whom still lingers in the hearts of those who knew him, like a strain of sweet music — it was said of him that he was a clergyman of the Church of England and an honorary member of all other Churches. The words were uttered in contempt, and were thought by some to be a piece of irony, and of refined and scornful wit; but, to my mind, no higher tribute could be paid, for they tell how he based his idea of religion, essentially not upon dogma or rite, but upon goodness, and drew to all in whom goodness could be found as spirits, kindred with himself. I do not know myself anything that brings one more truly to the gospel than this definition of religion. Take the first half of it — charity, or, as it is put here in a strong form, "visiting the fatherless and widows in their affection." Can such a life as that be carried out — except in a very spasmodic way — without a strong internal spiritual impulse, like that which comes from Christ. It is hard to raise charity from men who do not feel such an impulse. You might as well raise water from a pump without a valve. You work the piston of persuasion and push the water up, but there is no valve, and it straightway flows down again. I do not think anything can produce a life dedicated to humanity, but a self-dedication to that Christ who identified Himself with it, the strong impulse that comes from personal self-consecration to Him who "bore our sins and carried our sorrows." Or take the other half of this text — Keeping one's self unspotted from the world. How hard it is for any one to do that. How hopeless the work seems to any one who tries steadily to do that. To conquer old habits, and to put down passions by philosophy, is like trying to put out a fire with a scanty supply of water or a small hose. I believe if we would "walk in white," we must find our hidden life in Christ, through whom we can find a sense of forgiveness for the past, and strength for the time to come. Now, I may speak to some one here who has drifted, or who thinks he has drifted, away from Christianity. I hold up to him this idea of religion, "pure and undefiled." Unless he has fallen away from goodness, as well as from Christ, he must acknowledge its perfection and its beauty.
(J. C. Lees, D. D.)I. The virtue of BENEVOLENCE is here described by one of its most interesting and incumbent exercises. There is no description of persons who have a stronger claim on the tender compassions of our nature than those here specified — the widow and the orphan. It is deserving of special remark how frequently and how strongly God represents them as engaging His sympathies — how explicit and peremptory His charges are in their behalf, and how full of pointed force and heavy severity His denunciations against their oppressors (Psalm 68:5; Deuteronomy 10:18; Proverbs 23:10, 11; Exodus 22:22-24). If we fancy ourselves, or any dear to us, placed by Divine providence in the conditions referred to, we are powerfully sensible how much we should value the soothing sympathy and the kind attentions of friends and fellow Christians, and how deeply we should be wounded were these to be withheld. The more strongly we are sensible of this, the more imperative does the obligation that rests upon us become in behalf of those whom the Lord has afflicted. That He afflicted them is no reason why we should. Instead of its being a time when we are to keep aloof, and to affliction to the afflicted, it is a time when we are to hear the voice of Him whose very nature is love, enjoining by His providence and by His word the exercise of sympathy and kindness. The terms of the text suggest the lesson that our benevolence must not be mere emotion — no, nor mere words, or mere regrets, and sighs, and tears. Benevolence must be evinced by beneficence. Well-wishing must manifest its sincerity by well-doing. It is not in word only, but in deed. "It visits the fatherless and widows in their affliction." I need not say that to "visit" is to visit for the purpose of consolation and relief. It is quite obvious that under the term "visiting" there ought to be included all that we have it in our power to do for them: all for which visiting is of any real service. And surely there is no visitation of the fatherless and the widow more truly benevolent than that of which the object is to impart to them the consolations, the joys, the hopes of the very religion itself, by whose principles we are ourselves actuated in paying the visits.
II. The second part of practical religion, "pure and undefiled," contained in the text, is "to keep himself unspotted from the world." To this we give the general designation of SELF-GOVERNMENT. The style in which it is expressed is quite peculiar to the Scriptures. In this sacred book God and the world are invariably set in opposition to each other; as masters of opposite characters and opposite requirements, whose services can never be reconciled. The expression may be interpreted as including the whole of Christian purity of character. God is holy. All the precepts of God are holy; and all His truths, containing the manifestations of Himself and the motives to this purity, are holy. Purity is the first and most essential attribute of whatever comes from Him who "is Light, and in whom there is no darkness at all." But the world — the fallen, apostate, alien world — is in its maxims, and principles, and ways, opposed to the purity of God. It is polluting; it is infectious. It is hard to keep white robes clean in passing through the midst of all that is defiling. It is hard to shun contagion amidst crowds infected with the plague. Such, however, in a moral and spiritual sense, must be the Christian's daily and hourly endeavour. With such circumspection, jealous and incessant, is he called to walk. He must "have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness." He must "cleanse himself from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God." He must, in every department of his walk and conversation, seek to make it to all apparent that, although in the world, he is not of the world.
III. Let me now guard against prevailing and injurious MISCONCEPTIONS by one or two general observations.
1. Let not the two parts of pure and undefiled religion be separated. They too often are. There are men many a time to be found who are very humane, but who are by no means patterns of personal purity or separation from the world. They found their confidence before God on their charity as the means of pacifying His anger and conciliating His good-will, and rendering Him, if not blind altogether to their vices and their self-indulgent worldliness, at least very indulgent to them, and very gentle in His verdict against them. Men of humanity, without religion, may, no doubt, do good by the direct influence of their liberality on the temporal comfort and well-being of others. But they contribute as directly to an opposite result, in regard to interests of a higher order — the spiritual and eternal interests of men. And what is the body to the soul? — what is time to eternity? — "what is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord." And even where there is not open licentiousness, where there is only a mind that seeks its happiness in the world, the character is, in one view, the more dangerous from there being the less in it that does violence to the moral principles, whilst yet there is in all so lamentable a deficiency, the destitution of the hallowing and consecrating influence of piety. The mind is almost unconsciously deceived into the impression that religion is not essential to a good character. Everything appears to go on so amiably and usefully, and, on the whole, well and happily, without it. Oh that I could impress you all, deeply, permanently, influentially, with the conviction of the radical defectiveness of all principles that do not begin with God.
2. That neither the benevolence nor the purity enjoined by the text should be separated from those Christian principles of faith by which they are produced and maintained. Scriptural faith is faith that produces practice; scriptural practice is practice that springs from faith. It is with the extreme that talks of faith, to the overlooking of practice, that James has here to do. This is clear from vers. 21-26, It will not do to divorce morality from religion. The principles of religion are the only principles of true morality. They form, indeed, themselves the first and highest branch of morals; the obligation that arises from our relation to God Himself being, in the strictest sense and strongest degree, of a moral character. And as all Bible morality is founded in religion, let it not be forgotten that the Bible is a revelation of God to sinners; and that the religion of a sinner must necessarily regard God as so revealed. And this is the same thing with saying that the religion of a sinner must begin with the humble acceptance of mercy, as it is made known and offered by the gospel.
(R. Wardlaw, D. D.)
I. Some observations connected with THE MOTIVES AND OBLIGATIONS OF CHRISTIAN DUTY, with especial reference to the two comprehensive duties of benevolence and self-government, described in the text. God is love. tits tender mercies are over all His works. Whether we trace the character of the high and lofty One in the works of nature or in the dispensation of grace, the same benevolent trait of the Deity everywhere meets our view. "What return shall we make unto the Lord for all His benefits?" To present themselves "a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God," they acknowledge to be "a reasonable service." Hence their most earnest desires are that they may be holy, even as God is holy; that they may be preserved "blameless and harmless, the sons of God without rebuke, in the midst of a perverse and crooked generation." And hope supports them in their conflict with every enemy of their peace, and, in faith of the promises, they anticipate the glory that shall be revealed. But, besides motives of personal holiness, there are others also which influence our conduct as respects the world at large. Thus, both individually and collectively, the benign power of the gospel is exerted. The Christian reasons, "If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another." This life we know is only a preparation for a better, and accordingly as we shall have performed our parts well or ill here to our brethren that are in the world, so will our reward be hereafter. Thus we see that our own best, our immortal interests, are inseparably connected with those duties of sympathy and charity which we owe to our less fortunate brethren. Not, indeed, that our benevolent actions, or works of any other description, possess any innate value to recommend us to the favour of God, much less to merit a reward from Him: yet a reward of grace shall be given to them who, actuated by the principles of their Divine Master, have in their generation, after His example, gone about doing good. The foregoing remarks naturally lead to a further consideration, viz., that of —
II. PRACTICE THE TEST OF RELIGIOUS PRINCIPLE. Motives of duty implies duties to be performed. It sufficiently appears that the whole of Christian duty is not comprised in a system of opinions, nor in the mere observance of external ceremonies. Our Saviour hath Himself laid down a distinguishing mark, equally applicable to both true and false disciples (Matthew 7:20, 21). Now, one essential requisite of pure and undefiled religion the text informs us is —
1. "To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction." A mind truly touched with heavenly influence will lead us to view with eyes of pity and compassion all the sons and daughters of affliction, to enter into their sorrows, and to pour into their wounds the balm of consolation. And sure I am that the humblest Christian will rejoice to have it in his power to contribute to the alleviation of the common misery.
2. "To keep himself unspotted from the world." My brethren, the whole world lieth in wickedness. "The carnal mind is enmity against God; it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (Romans 8:7); "The imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Genesis 8:21); "That which is born of the flesh is flesh" (John 3:6). Now examine yourselves by the test here proposed. Inquire what are your real characters in the sight of the holy, heart-searching God. Does your sympathy for the distressed spring only from natural feeling? or are you also actuated by Christian principles and motives in visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction?
(T. Sharpies, B. A.)I. It is here asserted that religion, in order to be pleasing and acceptable unto God, must exhibit itself in acts of SYMPATHISING KINDNESS AND COMPASSION towards those who are placed in circumstances of helplessness, difficulty, and distress. As all these manifestations of benevolence could not be enumerated, they are represented by the apostle under one prominent form — that of visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction, thus presenting a case of affliction, and an occasion for kindness, from which no age of the world and no condition of society can be altogether exempt. He knew that other losses might be more easily compensated; that other sorrows might with less difficulty be soothed; that other bereavements would leave less of helplessness and loneliness behind them. He knew that the loss of property might be repaired by liberality, industry, and perseverance; that the loss of health was not invariably without its remedy; but that the loss of the fatherless and the widow would necessarily leave a vacuum which nothing could adequately supply. It is to the alleviation of this peculiar form of affliction, therefore/that the energies and the sympathies of the pure and undefiled religion of Him who cherished every form of social and domestic tenderness, who made little children the objects of His most gracious regard, and manifested towards His mother a most filial and watchful attention, are to be specially directed. In this amiable feature of its character, indeed, Christianity stands honourably distinguished from all the other forms and theories of religion which have ever prevailed in the world. It is the pure and undefiled, the compassionate and godlike religion of Jesus Christ alone, which has taught men their duty in this respect, as well as supplied them with adequate motives to the practice of it. It is this alone which has taught its professors to regard the whole human species, amidst all the diversity of its ranks, and pursuits, and conditions, as one great family. It has thus unsealed the great fountains of human sympathy and tenderness, which had hitherto been in a great degree locked up in the unconscious ignorance of our obligations, or concealed beneath the frost of selfishness.
II. But, in connection with the exercise of sympathetic kindness and practical benevolence, the apostle subjoins another essential constituent of pure and undefiled religion — that it maintains A CHARACTER UNSTAINED BY THOSE VARIOUS FORMS OF MORAL AND SPIRITUAL POLLUTION, with which the atmosphere of the present world is so deeply impregnated. Christian charity must not be less pure than generous; though she is in the world, she must not be of the world; though she blesses the earth with her presence, her origin is from heaven, and she must never forget the high and holy motives by which she is to be actuated. Like the sunbeam, she must illumine the darkest recesses of ignorance and vice without being contaminated by the contact; she must warm the desolate abodes of poverty without kindling into pride and self-righteousness; she must dispense her blessings with an open hand, and yet ascribe all the glory to that Father of lights, from whom cometh down every good and perfect gift; she must be willing, as occasion requires and her strength allows, to mingle in scenes from which the eye of taste and the sensibilities of worldly refinement, which have net been trained in the discipline of Christian humility and self-denial, would recoil; and yet she must be "as the wings of a dove, which are covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold." But this exemption from the predominent sway and the polluting influence of the world, as contradistinguished from true and scriptural piety, is not only necessary as the concomitant of pure religion in general, but it is also indispensable to the due exercise of the duty previously inculcated. The spirit of Christian benevolence and the spirit of the world are diametrically opposed to each other. Where every effort of labour and science and art is directed with such intense energy to the main end of multiplying and accumulating wealth, it requires a more than ordinary measure of watchfulness and prayer — of the generous, and effusive, and constraining influence of the love of Christ shed abroad in the heart, to keep it untainted by the contracting and indurating spirit of covetousness and grasping selfishness. Whatever has a tendency to concentrate the thoughts and feelings upon self, and to make the enjoyment of personal gratification the great business of life, must inevitably impede the free and spontaneous development of that great and diffusive principle of Christian love. Amidst the various trials and sufferings which are more or less inseparable from the present state of existence, she unfolds to their view a world where sin and sorrow are unknown; a world whose atmosphere is health, whose resources are exhaustless, whose pleasures are untainted, and whose honours are unfading; a world in which there are neither fatherless nor widows, because all earthly unions and relations have been lost and absorbed in the delightful fellowship of one great family, of "which God Himself is the Father, Jesus Christ the Elder Brother, and the eternal Spirit the all-pervading bond of holy and affectionate communion.
(J. Davies, B.D.)The name of religion has perhaps been as much misapplied as the thing itself has been neglected. Creeds and systems of doctrine, outward observances and forms of service, conventionalisms in the use of meats and drinks, apparel, and modes of speech, have all among different parties been dignified by the name of religion. The primary cause of the mistake is to be found in the sensuous tendencies of the sinful heart; but a secondary cause, worthy of attention, consists in not keeping distinctly in view the character and gracious relations of that glorious Being with whom religion is immediately concerned. The religion described in the text is, as it were, a continuous spiritual worship, presented, in the harmonious working of renewed emotions and their consequent actions, to our God and Father in Christ.
I. THE FIRST OUTWARD MARK OF RELIGION MENTIONED BY THE APOSTLE IS BENEFICENCE. We use this word to denote the sincere and active exercise of love toward our fellow men. The connection of such love with those emotions towards God in which religion more immediately consists is best expounded in 1 John 4:16, 20. But such beneficence admits of degrees, from the easy donation of sixpence out of the accumulations of prosperous trade up to the willingly laying "down our lives for the brethren." It may be doubted, therefore, what kind and what particular motive even of beneficence is enough to satisfy the question before us. To anticipate this difficulty, the apostle lays hold of one of its most real and impressive practical displays. "To visit," says he, "the fatherless and the widow in their affliction."
1. Religious beneficence addresses itself to the most necessitous objects. While impure beneficence, adulterated with an admixture of selfish policy, prefers a case of smaller to one of greater affliction, that which is sound at the core, and really springs from the presence of Divine love, contemplates affliction as such, and is impelled by the greatest force of desire to that wherein it finds the extremest need. Claims arising from duty to God may sometimes modify this feeling, but regard to worldly interest or convenience, never.
2. Religious beneficence especially singles out those objects which the worldly mind is disposed to despise. A poor widow is not unfrequintly like a queen dowager forsaken by the sycophant courtiers that formerly sunned themselves in the beams of her glory. The names of charity schools and charity children have passed into terms of reproach. Among all the evidences of human degeneracy this is perhaps the most widespread and manifest, that power is adored and goodness is despised. There is, therefore, a striking singularity in the conduct of the man who seeks out the fatherless and widows in their affliction. Our natural impression at once is that a Divine flame of love has been kindled in his heart, and that he is made a partaker of the nature of Him who, in the immensity of His glorious winks, has distinguished Himself by the unveiling of His goodness and the hiding of His power.
3. Religious beneficence expresses itself in personal effort and sacrifice. It is only an easy kind of beneficence when the rich give of their abundance to the relief of the poor, or where the eloquent on stated public occasions before listening thousands raise their voices on behalf of the fatherless. A feeble pulsation of love is all that is required for such benefactions. A better proof of its power is to be found in personal effort and sacrifice, or in the doing of that which is felt to be irksome in itself. Howard, descending into the depths of dungeons, placing himself in contact with the abandoned and the outcast, breathing the tainted air, of which he at length died, was an illustrious living embodiment of what the apostle has in view. Those who in such loving sympathies are seen bending over the beds of sickness and cheering with their presence the home of sorrow and want are truly ministering angels, and present the nearest approach to that Divine love which, as a pure and glorious atmosphere, invests the regions of the heavenly paradise.
II. THE SECOND GREAT SIGN OF TRUE RELIGION MENTIONED BY THE APOSTLE IS PERSONAL PURITY OR HOLINESS, EXPRESSED IN THE WORDS, "TO KEEP HIMSELF UNSPOTTED FROM THE WORLD." This may be regarded as the natural outworking of love to God, just as beneficence is more directly that of love to mankind. "If ye love Me," says the Saviour," keep My commandments." "Whoso," says John, "keepeth His word, in him verily is the love of God perfected." On the one side is God, the sovereign Creator and Ruler of all things, holy in all His works and righteous in all His ways, most justly demanding the worship and service of men formed originally in His own image and sustained continually by His bounteous care. On the other side is the rebellious human race, sunk in sin, estranged from its Creator, conspiring with Satan, its actual god, against His law and government, and forming in its godless spirit, its selfish maxims, and its bondage to flesh and sense, the world, which bids Him defiance. "To be kept," therefore, "from the world," and "not to be of the world," are expressions which denote an entire renunciation of all that belongs to its spirit and its relation to God — purity, that is, from its sins. The term "unspotted" seems to imply a notion of the word as something not only evil in itself, but also as being apt to contaminate those who are merely passing through it. As if the society of ungodly men were like a murky, polluting atmosphere, such as often envelopes our great cities, from which small particles of defilement are continually falling in silence on the objects below, and insensibly changing the brightest colours into those most nearly allied to blackness. Obviously in such circumstances the greatest care is necessary in order to keep one's self unspotted, not only by using means of protection, but also by observing regular seasons of cleansing. The world most fully presents this danger to the followers of Christ. The spirit which breathes in their necessary intercourse with society, the occasional excitement of sinful feelings by the provocations to which they are subject, the impressions continually made on their senses, and the secularising tendency even of their own lawful business, all conspire to damp the ardour of their spiritual life and to tarnish the lustre of their graces. Few Christians are absolutely without spots. But to be able in any fair measure, by the blessing of God or the use of means, to keep one's self unspotted from the contaminations of our age, is identical with a consistent and blameless Christian life.
(J. M. Charlton, M. A.)
I. "Pure religion and undefiled." Stop, now, just there. The first proposition found in the verses is this: THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE TRUE PERSONAL RELIGION FOR THE HUMAN SOUL.
1. Some argue for a mere intellectual scheme of belief. They would rest everything upon a certain fixed group of articles of faith and practice. The Christian religion has a creed of doctrines, and has a code of morals; but it is a life.
2. Some persistently press a mere poetic scheme of humane sympathy. It begins with a sigh, "Oh, I wish I could be good!" It continues with a song, "Nearer, my God, to Thee!" But it feels no sense of sin, and confesses none; so it generally rejects need of an atonement.
3. Some would urge upon us a mere routine scheme of ritual. This is little more than sentiment become artistic, devotion transmuted into devoteeism.
4. Some seek to present us with an ascetic scheme of moral observance. Of course, at its highest development, this ends in the cell of a hermit, and the white veil of a nun. But as we meet it in ordinary life, it goes not much farther than an iron rule of obedience to precept, and a strict treasuring of tradition.
5. Some insist on a scheme of mere philanthropy and benevolence. If such people knew there was a verse like ours in the Bible, they would flaunt it as the very motto on their banner — till they learned what it meant.
II. How is a man to choose? Who shall decide when all differ so? "Pure religion, and undefiled before God and the Father, is this." The next proposition may be stated thus: THE STANDARD OF REFERENCE, UP TO WHICH ALL RELIGION MUST BE BROUGHT, IS DIVINE.
1. It will not do to settle it by the opinion of others.
2. Nor will it do that one's religion be settled by himself. Any one can easily make a foolish mistake, just by thinking more highly of himself than he ought to think, and so be lost.
3. All this matter must be, and certainly will be, settled by God's opinion, and none other whatsoever.
III. We are ready to read on now somewhat further in the text. "Pure religion, and undefiled before God and the Father, is this: To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction." That is enough, and the new thought runs thus: THE TEST OF ALL TRUE PERSONAL RELIGION MAY BE FOUND IN CARE FOR THE WEAK AND LONELY.
1. The subjects of Christian charity mentioned here are typal as well as specific. Out of all classes of feeble people, the unprotected, and the helpless, God has chosen for our notice widows and orphans. The most trying condition in this world is brought to mind. A lonely mother, with fatherless children, is not only a living appeal for assistance and succour, but a thorough and exhaustive type, by which to teach the lesson that a true man's piety must be tested by the care he accepts for others.
2. But when is this duty binding? That brings out the occasion. The text says, "In their affliction," that is, in the time of it and in the place of it. Our help must be given when our help is needed. Consider times of narrowness, of panic, of business depression, as offering special occasion.
3. The method of bestowing help is all found in one word of the text, "visit." That cannot mean mere contribution of money; it means personal contact with those we hope to benefit. The one grand obstacle to all proper endeavour is found at the present day in the actual withdrawal of living heart from living heart in mutual acquaintance and interest.
4. But how far in such matters is one expected really to go? That inquiry is answered in our text also; the measure of obligation is quite clear. The significant lesson is taught us that religion is to be tested by feeling for the fatherless, and the feeling is to be measured by the fatherhood of God!
IV. Only on one condition can this ever be done; this is found in the final clause of the text. PERSONAL, RELIGION DEMANDS THE ENTIRE SURRENDER AND SEPARATION OF THE SOUL TO CHRIST. "Unspotted from the world." Oh, how much that means! No self; no waiting for applause; no expectation of return; all this is of the world, worldly, and the true religion will have none of it. Of course, then, we all see this entire verse is addressed to Christians. Only thus can it be counted a definition. The text says that religion, "pure and undefiled," is for a converted man; for an unconverted man it says nothing. Humanitarianism has nothing it does not borrow from religion. Success in all its enterprises would be secured better the moment the soul of the worker puts on Christ as a penitent believer. And he who puts on Christ, puts on also the burden of Christ.
(C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
I. BETWEEN OBEDIENCE AND FAITH THERE SUBSISTS AN INSEPARABLE CONNECTION,
II. OBEDIENCE IS THE REQUISITE EVIDENCE OF FAITH. It is the one evidence. And, moreover, this is the evidence by which the world will judge. We sometimes hear the ungodly babbling they know not what about Christian doctrine, and affirming that there is so much obscure, and so much mysterious, that they cannot separate that which is practical and intelligible. But we very seldom indeed find that they bring any accusation at all against a benevolent, painstaking, self-denying, active life.
(S. Robins, M. A.)I. TRUE RELIGION IS THE DIVINE SPRING OF PURE THOUGHT AND ACTION. As a watch is moved by its spring, so our actions are moved by the force of our inward belief. It is, therefore, of the highest importance to have true and inspiring faith, like that of a minister of the seventeenth century, when he said that "the first act of religion is to know what is true of God, the second act is to express it in our lives."
II. TRUE RELIGION IS AN INWARD FORCE OR YEARNING FOR PERSONAL PURITY. It is the birth and existence of a cleansing spirit within us.
III. TRUE RELIGION IS THE FLOWING OF GOD'S LOVE THROUGH US TO ALL MEN WITH WHOM WE HAVE TO DO.
(W. Birch.)I. "TO VISIT THE FATHERLESS AND WIDOWS," THAT IS, TO BE PLENTEOUS IN GOOD WORKS; "THESE ARE THE VERY BEGINNINGS AND NURSERY OF THE LOVE OF GOD."
1. There is no surer and readier step to the love of God, "whom we have not seen," than by the love of our brethren, "whom we see" (1 John 4:20).
2. As compassion to our brethren is a fair preparation to purity of life, so doth purity of conversation commend our liberality, and make it to be had in remembrance in the sight of the Lord. It may be bread, it is not an alms, that is brought by the hand of an oppressor or a Pharisee.
3. Therefore, in the next place, as they bear this fair correspondence, and mutually uphold each other, so we must not think it possible to separate them. Both are required at our hands; and if God hath joined them both together, let no man take upon him to divorce or put them asunder.
II. For, in the next place, THESE TWO THUS LINKED AND UNITED TOGETHER WILL KEEP RELIGION "PURE AND UNDEFILED"; which are as the colours and beauty of it, "the beauty of holiness," which hath its colour and grace from whence it hath its being and strength, and, if it be true, will shine in "the perfection of beauty." "Religion, if it be true, and not a name only, is as a virgin pure and undefiled, and maketh us so, and espouseth us to Christ." So is true religion, simple and solid, full of itself, having no heterogeneous matter, but ever the same, and about the same. There is nothing in our love which soureth our justice, nothing in our justice to kill our compassion, nothing in our liberality to defile our chastity, nothing in our fear to beat down our confidence, nothing in our zeal to consume our charity. "A true religious man is always himself." And as religion is "pure," without mixture, so it is "undefiled," and cannot subsist with pollution and pro. faneness. "Now are our Olympics, now is the great trial" to be made "before God and the Father." And our religion consisteth in this, "to fight it out legally" (2 Timothy 2:5); a condition they were bound to who were admitted to those games and exercises.
III. And now I have showed you the picture of religion in little, represented it to you in these two, doing of good, and abstaining from evil; filling the hungry with good things, and purging and emptying ourselves of all uncleanness. You have seen its beauty in its graceful and glorious colours of purity and undefiledness; a picture to be hung up in the Church, nay, before God Himself. And THUS IT APPEARETH "BEFORE GOD AND THE FATHER," AND HATH ITS RATIFICATION FROM HIM. Application:
1. This may serve, first, to make us in love with this religion, because it hath such a Founder as "God the Father," who is wisdom itself, and can neither be deceived, nor deceive us.
2. Again, if St. James be canonical and authentic, if this be true religion, then it will make up an answer sufficient to stop the mouth of those of the Romish party who are very busy to demand at our hands a catalogue of fundamentals, and where our Church was before the days of Reformation. Do the ask what truths are fundamental? Faith supposed, as it is here, they are — charity to ourselves and others. "To know this, is to know all we need to know." For is it not sufficient to know that which is sufficient to make us happy? But if nothing will satisfy them but a catalogue of particulars, "they have Moses and the prophets" (Luke 16:29); they have the apostles; and if they find their fundamentals not there, in vain shall they seek for them at our hands.
3. To conclude then. Men and brethren, are these things so? Is this only true religion — to do good, and to abstain from evil? If this should take place amongst the sons of men, we should have more religion and less noise. Could this religion, could the gospel of Christ prevail; could we "deny ourselves and take up the cross," and "keep ourselves unspotted from the world," there would be then no "wars, nor rumours of wars." Let us not deceive ourselves. It is the neglect and want of this that hath been the main cause of all the hot contentions which have been, and aa yet are, in the Church of Christ; I mean, amongst those who call one another "Christians"; whose mark and badge it is "to love one another."
(A. Farindon, B. D.)1. It is the glory of religion when it is pure. The true Christian religion is called "a holy faith" (Jude 1:20). No faith goeth so high for rewards, nor is so holy for precepts. Well, then, an impure life will not suit with a holy faith. Precious liquor must be kept in a clean vessel, and "the mystery of the faith" held "in a pure conscience" (1 Timothy 3:9). We never suit with our religion more than when the way is undefiled and the heart pure (Psalm 119:1; Matthew 5:9).
2. That a pure religion should be kept undefiled. A holy life and a bounteous heart are ornaments to the gospel. Religion is not adorned with ceremonies, but purity and charity.
3. A great fruit and token of piety is provision for the afflicted. In Matthew 25. you see acts of charity fill up the bill. Works of mercy do well become them that do expect or have received mercy from God.
4. Charity singleth out the objects that are most miserable. That is true bounty when we give to those that are not able to make requital (Luke 14:12-14).
5. This charity to the poor must be performed as worship, out of respect to God. The apostle saith to visit the fatherless is worship. A Christian hath a holy art of turning duties of the second table into duties of the first; and in respect to man, they worship God. "To do good, and to communicate, forget not; for with such sacrifice God is well pleased" (Hebrews 13:16). Well, then, alms should be sacrifice; not a sin-offering, but a thank-offering to God.
6. True religion and profession is rather for God's eye than man's. It aimeth at the approbation of God, not ostentation before men (Psalm 18:23).
7. We serve God most comfortably when we consider Him as a Father in Christ. We are not servants, but have received the adoption of sons. Get an interest in God, that His work may be sweet to you.
8. The relieving of the afflicted and the unspotted life must go together.
9. The world is a dirty, defiling thing. A man can hardly walk here but he shall defile his garments.(1) The very things of the world leave a taint upon our spirits. By worldly objects we soon grow worldly. It is hard to touch pitch and not to be defiled.(2) The lusts of the world, they stain the glory and deface the excellency of your natures (2 Peter 1:4). (Your affections were made for higher purposes than to be melted out in lusts.) The men of the world are sooty, dirty creatures. We cannot converse with them but they leave their filthiness upon us.
(T. Manton.)1. In His law and gospel the Lord requireth this duty of love and service to be done, to whom seeing we are infinitely indebted, we herein must be obedient.
2. The remembrance of our frailty, fickleness of our worldly condition, must move to charity; for such as are rich to-day may be poor to-morrow.
3. That we are members each of each other, and all members of one body; might it not move us to mutual succour?
4. If we require example, God is rich in mercy and in all goodness; He giveth abundantly to all men, and reproacheth none.
5. If we look for a president, our Saviour Christ is our Pattern, who laid down His life for us, that we should lay down our lives (much more our goods) for the brethren.
6. If reward may allure us, we have not only therefore promise of increase and multiplying our store here, as we see was performed to the widow of Sarepta, but also of eternal blessing.
7. If punishment may terrify us, then let us recount that as God promiseth exceeding great reward, both temporal and eternal, to the merciful, so He threateneth grievous punishment, both in this life and in the life to come, to the merciless, which thing should move us.
8. If we consider that by the apostle is set down as a property and effect of true religion, without which our religion is but counterfeiting, our holiness but halting, our devotion but dissimulation before God, thereby shall we be stirred up to this duty.
9. Finally, we shall be better moved hereunto, if we shall consider that we are only stewards of these goods, and that they are committed to us upon trust.
(R. Turnbull.)The reference is to the externals of religious worship, the cultus exterior, the ceremonial, the ritual of worship. St. James throws into contrast the old law with its gorgeous and imposing exhibitions, with the humble simplicity of the gospel, and the self-denying duties it enjoins. If religion needs a ritual, an outside by which its highest and holiest service may be made manifest, let all that is external be evidenced in the visiting of orphans and widows in the hour of their woe and want, and in a holy separation from the defilements of a wicked world.
(F. T. Bassett, M. A.)
To visit the fatherless and widows.I. WHAT IS MEANT BY VISITING THE FATHERLESS AND WIDOWS IN THEIR AFFLICTION.
1. The objects of our charity; the fatherless and widows in their affliction; in any want or distress wherein they need and are capable of our assistance.
2. The charitable act we are to exercise towards them who are in want or distress.
II. THIS IS A NECESSARY AND PRINCIPAL PART, AND A SIGNAL TESTIMONY, OF TRUE RELIGION. Mercy and charity are those duties which the gospel, the rule of our religion, doth in. a most earnest and especial manner require and press the performance of (1 Timothy 1:5: 1 Corinthians 13:13; 1 Peter 4:8; Hebrews 13:16; Luke 3:8; Matthew 5:7; James 2:13; 1 Timothy 6:17-19). Other exercises of religion can be of no value in the sight of God, where this duty of charity is neglected. What an affront must it be to God to pretend to join in prayers to Him for those who are in trouble, need, sickness, or any other adversity, if He hath put it in our own power to relieve them, and we will not! What mockery is it to come and sit before God as His people, and to hear His word, if covetousness hath so possessed our hearts that we have no regard to the most plain and express commands of it! The vanity and inefficacy of all such religious exercises, without charity, is most frequently asserted in Holy Scripture (Isaiah 1:11, 12, 17, 18; Isaiah 58:6, 7, 9). The great ends of religion, the glory of God, the good of His people here, and the disposing us for heaven hereafter, are most highly promoted by charity, and therefore it must be a principal part of it.
III. IT IS A SINGULAR TESTIMONY OF TRUE RELIGION, AND WHAT IT OBLIGETH ALL SORTS OF MEN TO; TO TAKE PARTICULAR CARE OF THE FATHERLESS CHILDREN AND WIDOWS OF GOD'S MINISTERS IN THEIR AFFLICTION, AND TO HAVE A MORE SPECIAL REGARD TO THEM IN THE EXERCISE OF THEIR CHARITY.
(L. Butler, D. D.)
(A. T. Pierson, D. D.)
(K. Arvine.)visit orphans and widows in their affliction," we instantly recognise a Jewish tone of thought and speech. Among the Jews, as among most Oriental races of the ancient world, widows and orphans were of all classes the most liable to plunder and oppression. Their inheritance was often filched from them under forms of law, now that they bad no strong arm to protect them, by an unjust judge whom they were unable to bribe, or even forcibly wrested from them by some rapacious kinsman or neighbour. Hence it was that the prophets constituted themselves the champions of the defenceless orphan and widow, denounced the curse of Heaven on all who wronged them, and even, by a bold figure of speech, declared God Himself to be the Husband of the widow and the Father of the fatherless. St. James, therefore, simply carries on the Hebrew tradition when he bids us, as part of the service, or worship, we owe to God, "visit orphans and widows in their affliction."
(Almoni Peloni.)visited His people when He redeemed them from bondage, or gave them abundance for want, joy for mourning. God visited Job when he cleansed him from his leprosy and gave him "twice as much as he had before." And, in like manner, we visit orphans and widows, in St. James' sense of the word, not when we call upon them, or say a few kind words to them, which cost us nothing, but when we defend them from insult or wrong, when we effectively minister to their wants or comfort them in their sorrow.
(A. C. Price, B. A.)
(M. G. Pearse.)
(H. P. Hughes, M. A.)I. The apostle's words prove, first, THAT SOMETHING MIGHT APPEAR TO BE, OR BE HELD TO BE, PURE AND UNDEFILED RELIGION, WHICH IS NOT SATISFACTORY BEFORE GOD.
1. They prove, for instance, that a scriptural and orthodox creed is not in itself sufficient.
2. Neither, it here appears, is an inactive, contemplative religion such as God approves.
II. IT SEEMED NEEDFUL THUS BRIEFLY TO HINT AT ERRORS IN THIS MATTER, FOR THE PURPOSE OF SHOWING, MORE PLAINLY WHAT IS TRUE AND UNDEFILED RELIGION.
1. It is, first, as we are here told, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, One half of the world, as has sometimes been, said, knows not how the other half lives. This will not be the case where there is pure and undefiled religion. There will be then a principle which will lead the one half to inquire into the condition of the other. And truly, there is much need.
2. When St. James mentions the widows and the fatherless, he means, of course, the destitute and afflicted of every class. He specifies these only as most especially deserving our compassion.
3. Observe, brethren, to visit. The original word is more comprehensive than any one word of ours can fully render. It is to look round for and to inspect their circumstances: to see the assistance which they need, even as God Himself did when He visited and redeemed His people, baying seen and pitied their condition.
III. I come now to THE OTHER CHARACTERISTIC OF PURE AND UNDEFILED RELIGION — to keep himself unspotted from the world.
1. In regard to worldly business, I need not say that a man does not keep himself unspotted from the world by withdrawing from it. The cases must be few where this could be needful. Religion consists in "using the world, as not abusing it."
2. The pleasures and amusements of the world are still more injurious than the business of the world, to pure and undefiled religion. Many of them, either considered in themselves, or viewed in their consequences and effects, are opposed to it altogether. They involve a waste of that time and that money which ought to be employed in the service of God and the welfare of mankind.
3. He is in danger, thirdly, from its sentiments as well as from its pleasures. Because the world, avowedly, does not take its sentiments from the Bible; but sets up its own authority, enacts its own rules, and issues its own decisions. At the same time, it must not be conceived that a man acts religiously, or thinks scripturally, merely because he opposes general opinion. The only proper course is, to be independent of general opinion; to choose a course according to our special case and circumstances, which we believe that God will approve, and which we r,-solve to follow, whether approved of men or no; whether with the world, or against the world.
Unspotted from the world.
1. In the first place, Christianity is a religion of the supernatural, and, to any one who is thoroughly in its power, it must bring the presence of a live supernaturalism, and make that the atmosphere of his life. What the poor creature needs who is standing right in the midst of the world's defilements, catching them on every side, is it not just this: the clear, sure certainty of another world, of a spiritual world with spiritual purity for its law? It is very much as if you went out of the pure, sweet, sensitive home-life in which you have been bred, into the lowest, filthiest pollution of the city. Suppose you had to live there a week, a month. What would keep you pure from its defilement? Would it not be the constant sense, the ever-present vision, of that higher realm of life that you had come from, making your present home seem dreadful to you? Would not the very knowledge that such a higher realm of life existed be your strength and protection? Nay, to alter the illustration a little, would not your presence, if you were really radiant with the purity of the better life you came from, exalt and help some poor creature there with the knowledge of the existence and the possibility of better things? And that is just the power of the Incarnation. It opened the spiritual, the supernatural, the eternal. It was as if the clouds were broken above this human valley that we live in, and men saw the Alps above them, and took courage.
2. But this is not enough. No mere sense of the supernatural ever saved a soul. Christ must come nearer to the soul than this before it can really by Him "escape the corruption that is in the world." Then there comes in all the personal relation between the soul and its Saviour. Now we must mount to think what was the purpose of the Incarnation. We must get sight of that Divine pity which saw us in our sins and came to rescue us. We must understand how clear-sighted the Creator is to see and feel the need of every one among His creatures. We must grasp the bewildering thought of a personal love for our single souls. And then all must be emphasised and condensed into the world's tragedy. We must see the Jesus of the Cross on the Cross. And what then? Do you not see? Full of profoundest gratitude the soul looks round to see what it can give to the Saviour in token of its feeling of His love. And it can find nothing. It has nothing to give. And hopeless of finding anything, it simply gives itself. It is its own no longer. It is given away to Christ. It lives His life and not its own. Can you imagine that becoming real to a man and not changing his relation to the temptations that beset him? He feels now with Christ's feeling, and corruption drops away from him as it drops away from Christ. Shame, love, hope, every good passion wakes in the soul. It walks unharmed, because it walks in this new sense of consecration.
3. When I ask somewhat more minutely into the method which Christ uses to keep His servants free from the world's corruption, I seem to come to something like this, which seems, like so much besides in the gospel, at first surprising, and then sublimely natural and reasonable, that it is by a Christlike dedication to the world that Christ really saves us from the world. Do you see what I mean? You go to your Lord, and say, "O Lord, this world is tempting me, and I fear its stains. How shall I escape it? Shall I run away from it?" And the answer comes as unmistakable as if a voice spoke out of the opened sky, "No; go up close to this world, and help it; feel for its wickedness; pity it; sacrifice yourself or it; so shall you be safest from its infection; so shall you be surest not to sacrifice yourself to it." They say the doctors and the nurses are least likely to catch the epidemic. If you have a friend who is dishonest or impure, the surest way to save yourself from him is to try to save him. More pure and more secure in purity than the Pharisee, man or woman, who draws back the spotless skirts from the reach of the poor fallen creature who clutches at them, is the pitying man or woman who in the nearest brotherhood or sisterhood goes close to the wretched sinner and takes him by the baud to lift him. I am not surprised to hear that the man who despises the sinner and gets as far away from him as possible has become, after all, the sharer of his sin. I am surprised if the tender sympathiser who goes to the poor slave of sin, and says, "My brother, my heart bleeds for you; let me help you" — I am surprised if he is not armed by his pity against the contagion of the sin he tries to help, and if he does not save both his brother and himself together.
(Bp. Phillips Brooks.)
(F. T. Bassett, M. A.)
(C. H. Spurgeon.)
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