« PreviousContinue »
tian, in whose mind such ideas are formed ought not to entertain very high notions of earthly things, he ought to esteem that in man, which constitutes his real greatness, that immortality, which is a part of his essence, those hopes of eternal glory, at which he aspires, those efforts, which he is making towards bearing the image of his Creator: such qualities deserve esteem, and not the empty advantages of fortune.
The apostle, having established this general maxim, applies it to a particular case: but there are some difficulties in his manner of stating the case, as well as in the maxim, to which he applies it. If there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; and ye have respect to him, that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? What assembly had the apostle in view here?
Some think he spoke of an assembly of judges, and by respect, or appearance of persons, a spirit of partiality. They say, these words of St. James are synonimous to those of God to Jewish Judges by Moses, Thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor, Lev. xix. 15. Ye shall not respect persons in judgment: but ye shall hear the small as well as the great, Deut. i. 16. 17. They confirm this opinion by quoting a canon of the Jews which enacts, that, when two persons of unequal rank appear together in the Sanhedrim, one shall not be allowed to sit while the other stands: but both shall sit together, or stand together, to avoid every shadow of partiality.
But perhaps our apostle spoke also of religious assembles, and intended to inform primitive christians, that where the distinctions of princes and subjects, magistrates and people were not known, there the rich would affect state, aspire to chief places, and gratify their senseless vanity by placing the poor on their footstools, in order to make them feel their indigence and meanness. However the apostle might mean, whether he spoke of juridical assemblies, or of religious conventions of partial judgments, or of improper distinctions in the church, it is plain, he intended to preclude that veneration, which in little souls riches obtain for their possessors, and that disdain, which poverty excites in such minds for those, whom providence hath exposed to it.
Among many reasons, by which he enforces his exhortation, that, which immediately precedes the text, is taken from charity, or benevolence. If ye fulfil the royal law, according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well. But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. Then follow the words of the text, for whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
It should seem at first, from the connection of the text with the preceding verses, that, when St. James says, whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all, he means, by this one point, benevolence. However, I cannot think, the meaning of St. James ought to be thus restricted. I rather suppose, that he took occasion from a particular subject to establish a general maxim, that includes all sins, which come under the same description with that, of which he was speaking. On this account, after he has said, who
soever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all, he adds, for he thất said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill, he adds another example beside that of which he had been speaking. Consequently, he intended not only to speak of violation of the precepts of love but also of all others, which had the same characters.
But in what light does he place this violation of the precept of love? He considers it as a sin committed with full consent, preceded by a judgment of the mind, accompanied with mature deliberation, and, to a certain degree, approved by him who commits it. All these ideas are contained in these words, ye have respect to persons, ye are partial in yourselves, ye are judges of evil thoughts, ye have despised the poor. What the apostle affirms of love in particular, he affirms of all sins committed with the same dispositions. Every sin committed with full consent, preceded by a judgment of the mind, accompanied with mature deliberation; every sin that conscience is made to approve during the commission of it; every such sin is included in this maxim of our apostle, whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
In this manner divest the text of one vague notion, to which it may seem to have given occasion. We acquit the apostle of the charge of preaching a melancholy, cruel, morality, and we affirm, for the comfort of weak and timorous minds, that we ought not to place among the sins here intended either momentary faults, daily frailties, or involuntary passions.
1. By daily frailties I mean those imperfections of piety, which are inseparable from the conditions of inhabitants of this world, which mix themselves with the virtues of the most eminent saints, and
which, even in the highest exercises of the most fervid piety, make them feel that they are men, and that they are sinful men. By daily frailties I mean wanderings in prayer, troublesome intrusions ofsensible objects, low exercises of self-love, and many other infirmities, of which you my dear brethren! have had too many examples in your own lives in time past, and yet have too much experience in the tempers of your hearts every day. Infirmities of this kind do not answer the black description, which St. James gives of the offence mentioned in the text. A good man, who is subject to these frailties, far from approving the sad necessity, that carries him off from his duty, deplores it. In him they are not conclusions from principles, laid down with full consent: they are sad effects of that imperfection, which God hath thought proper to leave in our knowledge and holiness, and which will remain as long as we continue to languish life away in this valley of tears. To say all in one word, they are rather an imperfection essential to nature, than a direct violation of the law.
2. We ought not to number momentary faults among the offences, of which it is said, Whosoever committeth one is guilty of a violation of the whole law. Where is the regenerate man, where is the saint, where is the saint of the highest order, who can assure himself, he shall never fall into some sins? Where is the faith so firm as to promise never to tremble at the sight of racks, stakes, and gibbets? Where is that christian heroism, which can render a man invulnerable to some fiery darts, with which the enemy of our salvation sometimes assaults us; and, (what is still more unattainable by human firmness) where is that christian heroism, which can. render a man invulnerable to some darts of volup-. tuousness, which strike the tenderest parts of na
ture, and excite those passions which are at the same time the most turbulent and the most agreeable? A believer falls into such sins only in those sad moments, in which he is surprized unawares, and in which he loses in a manner the power of reflecting and thinking. If there remain any liberty of judgment amidst the phrenzy, he employs it to recal his reason, which is fleeing, and to arouse his virtue, that sleeps in spite of all his efforts. All chained as he is by the enemy, he makes efforts weak indeed, but yet earnest, to disengage himself. The pleasures of sin, even when he most enjoys them, and while he sacrificeth his piety and innocence to them, are embittered by the inward remorse, that rises in his regenerate soul. While he delivers himself up to the temptation and the tempter, he complains, O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? Rom. vii. 24. When the charm has spent its force, when his fascinated eyes recover their sight, and he sees objects again in their true point of light, then conscience reclaims its rights; then he detests what he just before admired; then the cause of his joy becomes the cause of his sorrow and terror, and he prefers the pain, anguish and torture of repentance, before the most alluring attractives of sin.
3. We will venture one step further. We affirm, that gusts of involuntary passions ought not to be included in the number of sins, of which St. James saith, Whosoever offendeth in one point, he is guilty of all. God placeth us in this world as in a state of trial. We are all born with some passions which it is our duty to attack, and mortify: but from which we shall never be able to free ourselves entirely. The soul of one is united to a body, naturally so modified as to incline him to voluptuousness. Another soul has dispositions naturally in