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ST. JAMES.-CHRISTIAN SERVICE OF GOD.
ST. JAMES, i. 27.
Pure religion, and undefiled before God and the Father, is this:
To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.
THE word here translated “religion,” is one which occurs very seldom in the New Testament. It denotes commonly the outward service of religion, as consisting in rites and ceremonies; and as these were supposed too often to be the real service of God, so the title of “ religious” might be and was applied to persons, who in their lives and hearts scarcely served God at all. Hence the language of the Apostle in the text, and in the verse immediately before it, declares how much the word had been misused, and how it should be used properly. His religion or service to God is vain, who bridles not his tongue; whereas his is the true religion or
service to God, who visits the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and who keeps himself unspotted from the world. Such is the meaning of the text; let us now proceed to consider it more fully.
It has been the fate of certain passages of Scripture to be continually made use of for party purposes, and to be used for the sake of giving the authority of Scripture to views and doctrines to which in reality the Scripture is either adverse or indifferent. Thus worldly men are for ever quoting the text, “ Christ's kingdom is not of this world;" in order to prevent the Gospel from being admitted as the world's law. Others, who would represent differences of religion as of no consequence, quote the words of St. Peter, that “ in every land he who feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted of Him.” A third set are fond of applying to the practice of using written forms of prayer in the church, the expression of St. Paul, which has not the slightest relation to it, about “ holding fast the form of sound words;" while there have been others no less absurd, who have quoted, as condemning the repetitions in our Church service, our Lord's words to His disciples, telling them, “ when they pray, not to use vain repetitions." So also with the words of the text; they also have been used invidiously to decry what we commonly call devotion or religious affections,
and to represent the whole of religion as consisting in acts of charity and temperance.
Now the lesson to be drawn from these misquotations, as far as our own use is concerned, is to show us how necessary it is to study the Scripture in the first place generally, and in the second place carefully and sensibly. He whose reading is confined to detached texts or passages, or to particular parts of the Scripture only, cannot see the whole mind of the Spirit respecting us, but must get views incomplete and partial. The Epistle of St. James presents one view of Christianity, and one most beautiful and instructive; but it does not give us all the views which we need; we were not intended to refer to it alone, as the Epistles of St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. John have been provided for us also. So, on the other hand, it is ill done to admire St. Paul so exclusively, as to refuse, as some have done, to listen to St. James also. Again, it is necessary to study the Scripture carefully and sensibly, as well as generally, to understand what the words meant in the first instance, and how far they can or ought to be applied to things seemingly similar now. Obvious as this seems, even to a truism, yet it would be well if it were attended to in practice; and that it is not attended to, every day's experience of men's talking and writing upon points connected with the Scriptures does but prove too fully.
But to return to our particular subject. It is clearly wrong so to interpret St. James as to make him say literally, that the whole of religion consists in acts of charity and temperance. It is manifest that every idea of religion contains in it the idea of serving God. And it is equally clear that there can be no serving God without intending to serve Him; that is, without thinking Him to have a claim on our service. When then St. James calls the works of charity and temperance
pure and undefiled religion," or service of God, it is plain, by the very force of the words, that he must mean such works of charity and temperance as are done in order to serve God; that is, such as are done in faith. For if they be done without any notion of God, they cannot be called a pure service to God; for they are not a service to Him at all, except accidentally; they are no service so far as regards our intention. But it may be said that still the words include no mention of Christ; and that pure religion, according to St. James, may exist without any belief in the Son, provided there be a belief in the Father. Undoubtedly, if the words of the text were a single fragment, written by we knew not whom, and belonging to we know not what, this might be said fairly. But I only allude to it now, to show the mischief of looking at texts of Scripture separately, without regard to the writer, or the occasion, or the whole
composition from which the text is taken. The interpretation which might be given of the passage fairly, if it were the fragment of an unknown writer, becomes absurd when we know that it is a passage out of an epistle written by a Christian to Christians; and that if the writer had really meant that true religion need not include faith in Christ, both he and the persons to whom he was writing were no better than madmen; for they had separated themselves from the mass of their countrymen, and were exposed daily to persecution, only for their profession of that very name which yet, according to the supposed meaning of the text, has no necessary connexion with pure religion.
What St. James does mean then, is no more than this ; that the Christian who would truly serve God in Christ, must serve Him not in word, but in deed; and he selects especially two classes of good deeds, which form as it were the very essence of this service, those of charity and purity.
And here undoubtedly the lesson of the text is one perpetually applicable. It points out what are, and ever have been, the peculiar virtues of Christianity, what all parts of the New Testament alike insist on. And they are so insisted on, not only for their importance, but also for their difficulty; because they are at variance with some of our strongest inclinations, and must be practised