JAMES, i. 16, 17.
"Do not err, my beloved brethren; every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights."
This text, I believe more and more every day, is one of the most important ones in the whole Bible; and just at this time it is more important for us than ever, because people have forgotten it more than ever.
And, according as you firmly believe this text, according as you firmly believe that every good gift you have in body and soul comes down from above, from God the Father of lights--according, I say, as you believe this, and live upon that belief, just so far will you be able to do your duty to God and man, worthily of your blessed Saviour's calling and redemption, and of the high honour which He has given you of being free and christened men, redeemed by His most precious blood, and led by His most noble Spirit.
Now, just because this text is so important, the devil is particularly busy in trying to make people forget it. For what is his plan? Is it not to make us forget God, to put God OUT of all our thoughts, to make us acknowledge God in none of our ways, to make us look at ourselves and not at God, that so we may become first earthly and sensual, and then devilish, like Satan himself? Therefore he tries to make us disbelieve this text. He puts into our hearts such thoughts as these:--'Ay, all good gifts may come from God; but that only means all spiritual gifts. All those fine, deep doctrines and wonderful feelings that some very religious people talk of, about conversion, and regeneration, and sanctification, and assurance, and the witness of the indwelling Spirit,--all those gifts come from God, no doubt, but they are quite above us. We are straightforward, simple people, who cannot feel fine fancies; if we can be honest, and industrious, and good- natured, and sober, and strong, and healthy, that is enough for us,-- and all that has nothing to do with religion. Those are not gifts which come from God. A man is strong and healthy by birth, and honest and good-natured by nature. Those are very good things; but they are not gifts--they are not GRACES--they are not SPIRITUAL blessings--they have nothing to do with the state of a man's soul. Ungodly people are honest, and good-tempered, and industrious, and healthy, as well as your saints and your methodists; so what is the use of praying for spiritual gifts to God, when we can have all we want by nature?'
Did such thoughts never come into your head, my friends? Are they not often in your heads, more or less? Perhaps not in these very words, but something like them.
I do not say it to blame you, for I believe that every man, each according to his station, is tempted to such thoughts; I believe that such thoughts are not YOURS or any man's; I believe they are the devil's, who tempts all men, who tempted even the Son of God Himself with thoughts like these at their root. Such thoughts are not YOURS or mine, though they may come into our heads. They are part of the evil which besets us--which is NOT us--which has no right or share in us--which we pray God to drive away from us when we say, "Deliver us from evil." Have you not all had such thoughts? But have you not all had very different thoughts? have you not, every one of you, at times, felt in the bottom of your hearts, after all, 'This strength and industry, this courage, and honesty, and good-nature of mine, must come from God; I did not get them myself? If I was born honest, and strong, and gentle, and brave, some one must have made me so when I was born, or before? The devil certainly did not make me so, therefore GOD must? These, too, are His gifts?'
Did you ever think such thoughts as these? If you did not, not much matter, for you have all acted, more or less, in your better moments as if you had them. There are more things in a man's heart, thank God, than ever come into his head. Many a man does a noble thing by instinct, as we say, without ever THINKING whether it is a noble thing or not--without THINKING about it at all. Many a man, thank God, is led at times, by God's Spirit, without ever knowing whose Spirit it is that leads him.
But he OUGHT to know it, for it is WILLING, REASONABLE service which God wants of us. He does not care to use us like tools and puppets. And why? He is not merely our Maker, He is our Father, and He wishes us to know and feel that we are His children--to know and feel that we all have come from Him; to acknowledge Him in all our ways, to thank Him for all, to look up lovingly and confidently to Him for more, as His reasonable children, day by day, and hour by hour. Every good gift we have comes from Him; but He will have us know where they all come from.
Let us go through now a few of these good gifts, which we call natural, and see what the Bible says of them, and from whom they come.
First, now, that common gift of strength and courage. Who gives you that?--who gave it David? For He that gives it to one is most likely to be He that gives it to another. David says to God, "Thou teachest my hands to war, and my fingers to fight; by the help of God I can leap over a wall: He makes me strong, that my arms can break even a bow of steel:"--that is plain-spoken enough, I think. Who gave Samson his strength, again? What says the Bible? How Samson met a young lion which roared against him, and he had nothing in his hand, and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he tore the lion as he would have torn a kid. And, again, how when traitors had bound him with two new cords, the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and the cords which were on his arms became as flax that was burnt with fire, and fell from off his hands. And, for God's sake, do not give in to that miserable fancy that because these stories are what you call miraculous, therefore they have nothing to do with you--that Samson's strength came to him miraculously by God's Spirit, and yet yours comes to you a different way. The Bible is written to tell you how all that happens really happens--what all things really are; God is working among us always, but we do not see Him; and the Bible just lifts up, once and for all, the veil which hides Him from us, and lets us see, in one instance, who it is that does all the wonderful things which go on round us to this day, that when we see any thing like it happen we may know whom to thank for it.
The Great Physician healed the blind and the lame in Judea; and why?--to shew us who heals the blind and the lame now--to shew us that the good gift of medicine and surgery, and the physician's art, comes down from Him who cured the paralytic and cleansed the lepers in Judea--to whom all power is given in heaven and earth.
So, again, with skill in farming and agriculture. From whom does that come? The very heathens can tell us that, for it is curious, that among the heathen, in all ages and countries, those men who have found out great improvements in tilling the ground have been honoured and often worshipped as divine men--as gods, thereby shewing that the heathen, among all their idolatries, had a true and just notion about man's practical skill and knowledge--that it could only come from Heaven, that it was by the inspiration and guidance of God above that skill in agriculture arose. What says Isaiah of that to the very same purpose? "Doth the ploughman plow all day to sow? doth he open and break the clods of his ground? When he hath made plain the face thereof, doth he not cast abroad the vetches, and cast in the principal wheat and the appointed barley and the rye in their place? For his God doth instruct him to discretion, and doth teach him. This also," says Isaiah, "cometh from the Lord of Hosts, who is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working." Would to God you would all believe it!
Again; wisdom and prudence, and a clear, powerful mind,--are not they parts of God's likeness? How is God's Spirit described in Scripture? It is called the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of prudence and might. Therefore, surely, all wisdom and understanding, all prudence and strength of mind, are, like that Spirit, part of God's image; and where did we get God's image? Can we make ourselves like God? If we are like him, He must have formed that likeness; and He alone. The Spirit of God, says the Scripture, giveth us understanding.
Or, again; good-nature and affection, love, generosity, pity,--whose likeness are they? What is God's name but love? God is love. Has not He revealed Himself as the God of mercy, full of long-suffering, compassion, and free forgiveness; and must not, then, all love and affection, all compassion and generosity, be His gift? Yes. As the rays come from the sun, and yet are not the sun, even so our love and pity, though they are not God, but merely a poor, weak image and reflection of Him, yet from Him alone they come. If there is mercy in our hearts, it comes from the fountain of mercy. If there is the light of love in us, it is a ray from the full sun of His love.
Or honesty, again, and justice,--whose image are they but God's? Is He not THE Just One--the righteous God? Is not what is just for man just for God? Are not the laws of justice and honesty, by which man deals fairly with man, HIS laws--the laws by which God deals with us? Does not every book--I had almost said every page--in the Bible shew us that all our justice is but the pattern and copy of God's justice,--the working out of those six latter commandments of His, which are summed up in that one command, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself?"
Now here, again, I ask: If justice and honesty be God's likeness, who made us like God in this--who put into us this sense of justice which all have, though so few obey it? Can man make himself like God? Can a worm ape his Maker? No. From God's Spirit, the Spirit of Right, came this inborn feeling of justice, this knowledge of right and wrong, to us--part of the image of God in which He created man--part of the breath or spirit of life which He breathed into Adam. Do not mistake me. I do not say that the sense, and honesty, and love in us, ARE God's Spirit--they are the spirit of MAN, but that they are LIKE God's Spirit, and therefore they must be given us BY God's Spirit to be used as God's Spirit Himself uses them. How a man shall have his share of God's Spirit, and live in and by God's Spirit, is another question, and a higher and more blessed one; but we must master this question first--we must believe that our spirits come FROM God, then, perhaps, we shall begin to see that our spirits never can work well unless they are joined to the Spirit of God, from whom they came. From whom else, I ask again, can they come? Can they come from our bodies? Our bodies? What are they?--Flesh and bones, made up of air and water and earth,--out of the dead bodies of the animals, the dead roots and fruits of plants which we eat. They are earth--matter. Can MATTER be courageous? Did you ever hear of a good-natured plant, or an honest stone? Then this good-nature, and honesty, and courage of ours, must belong to our souls--our spirits. Who put them there? Did we? Does a child make its own character? Does its body make its character first? Can its father and mother make its character? No. Our characters must come from some spirit above us--either from God or from the devil. And is the devil likely to make us honest, or brave, or kindly? I leave you to answer that. God--God alone, my friends, is the author of good--the help that is done on earth, He doeth it all Himself: every good gift and every perfect gift cometh from Him.
Now some of you may think this a strange sort of sermon, because I have said little or nothing about Jesus Christ and His redemption in it, but I say--No.
You must believe this much about yourselves before you can believe more. You must fairly and really believe that GOD made you one thing before you can believe that you have made yourselves another thing. You must really believe that you are not mere machines and animals, but immortal souls, before you can really believe that you have sinned; for animals cannot sin--only reasonable souls can sin. We must really believe that God made us at bottom in His likeness, before we can begin to find out that there is another likeness in us besides God's--a selfish, brutish, too often a devilish likeness, which must be repented of, and fought against, and cast out, that God's likeness in us may get the upper hand, and we may be what God expects us to be. We must know our dignity before we can feel our shame. We must see how high we have a right to stand, that we may see how low, alas! we have fallen.
Now you--I know many such here, thank God--to whom God has given clear, powerful heads for business, and honest, kindly hearts, I do beseech you--consider my words, Who has given you these but God? They are talents which He has committed to your charge; and will He not require an account of them? HE only, and His free mercy, has made you to differ from others; if you are better than the fools and profligates round you, He, and not yourselves, has made you better. What have you that you have not received? By the grace of God alone you are what you are. If good comes easier to you than to others, HE alone has made it easier to you; and if you have done wrong,--if you have fallen short of your duty, as ALL fall short, is not your sin greater than others? for unto whom much is given of them shall much be required. Consider that, for God's sake, and see if you, too, have not something to be ashamed of, between yourselves and God. See if you, too, have not need of Jesus Christ and His precious blood, and God's free forgiveness, who have had so much light and power given you, and still have fallen short of what you might have been, and what, by God's grace, you still may be, and, as I hope and earnestly pray, still will be.
And you, young men and women--consider;--if God has given you manly courage and high spirits, and strength and beauty--think--GOD, your Father, has given them to you, and of them He will surely require an account; therefore, "Rejoice, young people," says Solomon, "in your youth, and let your hearts cheer you in the days of your youth, and walk in the ways of your heart and in the sight of your eyes. But remember," continues the wisest of men,--"remember, that for all these things God shall bring you into judgment." Now do not misunderstand that. It does not mean that there is a sin in being happy. It does not mean, that if God has given to a young man a bold spirit and powerful limbs, or to a young woman a handsome face and a merry, loving heart, that He will punish them for these--God forbid! what He gives He means to be used: but this it means, that according as you use those blessings so will you be judged at the last day; that for them, too, you will be brought to judgment, and tried at the bar of God. As you have used them for industry, and innocent happiness, and holy married love, or for riot and quarrelling, and idleness, and vanity, and filthy lusts, so shall you be judged. And if any of you have sinned in any of these ways,-- God forbid that you should have sinned in ALL these ways; but surely, surely, some of you have been idle--some of you have been riotous--some of you have been vain--some of you have been quarrelsome--some of you, alas! have been that which I shall not name here.--Think, if you have sinned in any one of these ways, how can you answer it to God? Have you no need of forgiveness? Have you no need of the blessed Saviour's blood to wash you clean? Young people! God has given you much. As a young man, I speak to you. Youth is an inestimable blessing or an inestimable curse, according as you use it; and if you have abused your spring-time of youth, as all, I am afraid, have--as I have--as almost all do, alas! in this fallen world, where can you get forgiveness but from Him that died on the cross to take away the sins of the world?
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