Thank God for the Epistle of James! It is not as a rule much thought of; it contains none of the great truths and doctrines of Scripture; we do not go to it to learn the deep things of God, or the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory; yet we can only neglect it to our loss, for it fills a most important place, and never more so than at the present time, when there is so much talk and little action, and when practical everyday righteousness in the dealings of man with God and with his fellow-man is so little regarded.
Now James takes up the practical side of life in the sight of God and man, and insists upon the fact that, whatever we hold or whatever we say, it is all of no use unless our lives are right. Talking will not cover our defects in action, nor soundness of doctrine unfaithfulness in every day life. If a man's life is not right, nothing is right about him. The righteous Lord loveth righteousness. It is impossible to cheat Him.
We read "What does it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful for the body: what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone." (James 2:14-17.) What could be more simple, more practical? Some are slow to understand doctrine, but here is something all can understand. Let none say it is low truth. It is indispensable truth — which no man can do without. By all means let every Christian seek with all his heart to get hold of heavenly truth, but never to the exclusion of the simplest earthly side of things. Gold and diamonds are far more valuable than iron and earth, but if we had to choose the one or the other of these pairs and could not have both, we should choose the earth and iron, for these we must have or die. The others are luxuries.
Heavenly truth and the truth of the Church will be known at best by the few, but all true Christians have a sense of sin, and know that Christ died to save us from it. They have a desire to be free from sin and to know Christ's saving power, otherwise they are not Christians at all in reality. But it is possible to be a giant in knowledge, and yet, like Balaam, to have the heart set on covetousness and not know the grace of God at all. It is possible to be exalted to heaven and yet to be cast down into hell at the end.
The apostle says: "If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain." (James 1:26.) And again, speaking of the tongue, he says: "Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be." (James 3:9-10.) It is not enough to bless God. We must bless man also. It will not do to boast of zeal for the Lord (a Jehu can do this, and, in a measure, truthfully) while the actions may shew that self is at the bottom of all that we do. The royal law is this, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself," and to have respect of persons is to commit sin and to be convinced of the law as transgressors. Is there no word for us in this to-day? Should we not be bowed with shame to the earth, when we think of the back-biting and evil speaking that take place by Christian against Christian, behind the backs of those maligned, and without giving them an opportunity of clearing themselves, while the defects of those in ecclesiastical agreement with ourselves are glossed over as of comparatively small account? Surely these things ought not to be. "So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment. (James 2:13.)
The great lack for the day is not high truth, beautiful though it be, but the simpler truths which are daily denied in practice while high truth is contended for in words, and beloved children of God, who are seeking in their feeble way to follow Christ with all their hearts, are often condemned as practically unfit for the company of any Christians, because they cannot repeat a certain shibboleth!
"Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But if we have bitter envying and strife in our hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth." (James 3:13-14.) Practically righteous we must be, upright, loving, pure, truthful, kind, meek, lowly, gracious, faithful, unselfish, scrupulously honest, and with the fear of God in our hearts, if we are to answer to the description of those whom He has redeemed from all iniquity to purify unto Himself, a peculiar people zealous of good works.
What then is pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father? It is "to visit the fatherless and the widow in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." (James 1:27.) Not the visiting of the fatherless and widow alone, and not alone the keeping of self unspotted from the world, but both to go concurrently. The first alone would be merely philanthropy without Christ, the latter alone would be monasticism, also without Christ, while the two together would shew something of Christlikeness: holiness combined with self-sacrifice for the sake of all, who have need upon the earth.
But if one err from the truth, what then? Are we to have done with him? Not at all, we are to leave the ninety-nine good ones the rather, and seek this one until we find him. Is it separation from evil to occupy ourselves with the ninety-nine, whom we think are right, and leave the lost sheep? Not at all, it is not the Lord's way, and they, who act thus, will eventually be found with, say, one sheep whom they think right, while the ninety-nine to whom the Lord has sent them are straying in the dark mountains, and the Lord will require the flock at the hand of those shepherds. (See Ezek. 34:10.) What does James say? Let the one who converts him "know that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins." (James 5:19-20.)
Truly we should be less keen to see the faults of another, did we acknowledge that in such a case we were responsible to restore him. We should then perhaps bow to the word, "Speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgeth another?" (James 4:11-12.) "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much." (Luke 16:10.)
The characteristic of the last days is to have a form of godliness, and to deny the power thereof. May we therefore judge ourselves and humble ourselves before God, may we repent of our sins in the ordinary everyday life, remembering that our Lord takes note of everything, and He will judge every man according to his works. Reality He will have, and we need also to insist on reality with ourselves. We are not here as judges, but as redeemed saints, who are to carry out practically in this world that for which they are redeemed, viz. God-likeness in the midst of a sinful world, whilst remembering all the time what poor things we are and how liable to err we are ourselves. Then the sense of the grace shewn to us daily will make us show grace to others, while we are strict towards ourselves.
May God keep us from the shame of those, whose religion is vain while their mouth has spoken great things.