Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the Law that gives freedom.
I. THE CERTAINTY OF JUDGMENT. The apostle takes the fact for granted. This certainty is attested by:
1. Human nature, Man possesses intuitively the conviction of his moral responsibility. Conscience anticipates even now the sentence which shall proceed from the bar of God. If he be not our Judge, the deepest dictates of morality are illusions.
2. Divine providence. While there is abundant evidence that the world is under moral government, it is also plain that there are many inequalities which require adjustment. The world is full of unredressed wrongs and undiscovered crimes. Providence itself, therefore, points to a day of rectifications.
3. The Word of God. The Bible everywhere represents the Eternal as a moral Governor; and the New Testament in particular describes the final judgment as a definite future event which is to take place at the second advent of Christ.
II. THE STANDARD OF JUDGMENT. The poor heathen, since they sin without law, shall be judged without law. Those who possess the Bible shall be tried by the higher standard of that written revelation. Believers in Christ, however, shall be "judged by a law of liberty" (ver. 12). This law is, of course, just the moral law viewed in the light of gospel privilege. In the Decalogue, the form which the law assumes is one of outward constraint. As proclaimed from Sinai, it constituted really "an indictment against the human race;" and it was surrounded there with most terrible sanctions. But now, to the Christian, the law comes bound up with the gospel; and the power of gospel grace within the heart places him on the side of the law, and makes it the longer the more delightful for him to obey it. In the believer's ear the law no longer thunders, "Thou shalt not." To him "love is the fulfillment of the law." The commandments, being written now upon his heart, are no longer "grievous" (1 John 5:3). The law has become to him "a law of liberty."
III. THE SUBJECT-MATTER OF JUDGMENT. "So speak ye, and so do" (ver. 12). The standard will be applied to our words and to our actions. The apostle has already touched upon the government of the tongue in James 1:19, 26; and he has dealt with practical conduct in the intervening verses. His teaching here is an echo of that of the Lord Jesus upon the same theme (Matthew 12:34-37; Matthew 7:21-23). A man's habits of speech and action are always a true index of his moral state. If we compare human character to a tree, words correspond to its leaves, deeds to its fruit, and thoughts to its root underground. Words and actions will be judged in connection with "the counsels of the hearts" of which they are the exponents.
IV. THE PRINCIPLE OF JUDGMENT. (Ver. 13.) This doctrine of merciless judgment to the unmerciful is enunciated in many parts of Scripture. It receives especial prominence in the teaching of our Lord (Matthew 5:7; Matthew 6:12, 14, 15; Matthew 7:1; Matthew 18:23-35). We can never, of course, merit eternal life by cherishing a compassionate spirit. But, since mercy or love is the supreme element in the character of God, it is plain that those who do not manifest active pity towards others have not themselves been renewed into his image, and are therefore unsaved. The purpose of the gospel is to restore man's likeness to God, who "is love;" so that the man who exhibits no love shows that he has not allowed the gospel to exercise its sanctifying power within him, and he shall therefore be condemned for rejecting it. But the medal has another side; for the apostle adds, "Mercy glorieth against judgment." This seems to mean that the tender-hearted and actively compassionate follower of Christ need not fear the final judgment. His mercifulness is an evidence that he is himself a partaker of the mercy of God in Christ. He shall lift up his head with joy when he stands before the bar of Heaven (Matthew 25:34-40). His Judge will be the Lord Jesus, over whose cradle and at whose cross mercy and judgment met together. God himself, in order to effect our redemption, sheathed the sword of justice in the heart of mercy; and his redeemed people, in their intercourse with their fellow-men, learn to imitate him by cultivating the spirit of tenderness and forgiveness. Thus it is an axiom in the world of grace, acted on both by God and by his people, that "mercy glorieth against judgment." - C.J.
The law of liberty.
I. The gospel is a law of liberty, BY ITS TRANSFORMING EFFECT UPON THE PRINCIPLES AND DISPOSITIONS OF MEN. The gospel does not repeal or alter God's law, but republishes it with some remedial and corrective accompaniments. By these, it aims to effect relief for man in that only other way which is practicable — the rectification of his wishes and inclinations, so as to make them coincide with the behests of the law, in order that he may not be free without obedience, but free in obedience.
II. The gospel is a law of liberty, IN RESPECT TO ITS MODE OF LEGISLATING FOR MEN. A free-will service is always a profuse and generous one; and as the gospel produces, expects, and accepts only a free-will service, it deals with its subjects accordingly, as with beings who will have no inclination to economise and stint their service, and dole it out in the very scantiest measures that will answer the literal terms of demand. It does not look for close construction and parsimonious obedience in its subjects, but supposes them to be inflamed with a love of duty, and directed by a spirit of liberal and affectionate loyalty. It is an evil sign of Christian people to see them always hovering on the very verge of positive impropriety and disobedience, casting a wistful eye into Satan's territory, and arguing with the world for the last inch of debatable ground between them. Oh, rather let your doings and renunciations for Christ be generous. For your sakes He became poor. In return, be willing to do much and renounce much, and with light and willing heart take up your cross and follow Him.
(R. A. Hallam, D. D.)
I. WHAT DO WE MEAN BY LIBERTY? It is the genuine ability of a living creature to manifest its whole nature, to do and be itself most unrestrainedly. Nothing more, nothing less than that. There is no compulsion, and yet the life, by a tendency of its own educated will, sets itself towards God.
1. What a fundamental and thorough thing this law of liberty must be. It is a law which issues from the qualities of a nature going thence out into external shape and action. It is a law of constraint by which you take a crooked sapling and bend it straight and hold it violently into line. It is a law of liberty by which the inner nature of the oak itself decrees its outward form, draws out the pattern shape of every leaf, and lays the hand of an inevitable necessity on bark and bough and branch.
2. This doctrine of the law of liberty makes clear the whole order and process of Christian conversion. Laws of constraint begin conversion at the outside and work in. Laws of liberty begin their conversion at the inside and work out. Which is the true way?
3. This truth throws very striking light into one of the verses which precede our text, one of the hardest verses in the Bible to a great many people. "Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, is guilty of all," it is said. Why? Because the consistent, habitual breakage of one point proves that the others were kept under the law of constraint, not under the law of liberty. You see the flame, and you speak of it as a whole: "The house is on fire! There is fire in the house!" Just so you see the bad fiery nature which the law constrains breaking through, and again you speak of it as a whole. What particular shingle is burning is of no consequence. "The law is broken. The one whole law is broken by the one whole bad heart!"
4. The whole truth of the law of liberty starts with the truth that goodness is just as controlling and supreme a power as badness. Virtue is as despotic over the life she really sways as vine can be over her miserable subjects. Free, yet a servant! Free from external compunctions, free from sin; yet a servant to the higher law that issues for ever from the God within him. "A God whose service is perfect freedom." Oh for such a liberty in us! Look at Christ and see it in perfection.
(Bp. Phillips Brooks.)
(Dean Gregory.)I. To EXPLAIN THIS CHARACTER OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION, that it is a "law of liberty."
1. It is evident that it is a law, that is, a revelation of the will of God to men for the direction of their lives, enforced by the sanction of rewards and punishments. Yet our condition is not rendered servile by it. We cannot in any case act without motives, but they do not make us slaves. The human nature being rational, reason does not destroy its freedom, but establish it, and is the rule of it; then only are we indeed free when we conduct ourselves with understanding. On this account principally the gospel is called the law of liberty, it restores the empire of reason in men, and rescues them from servitude to their lusts and passions.
2. Pursuant to this, Christians by the gospel have obtained a deliverance from condemnation, and therefore it may justly be called the law of liberty.
3. The gospel is a law of liberty, as it frees Christians from the burthensome rites of the Mosaic institution.
4. The gospel is a law of liberty, as it sets us free from the power and authority of men in matters of religion and conscience.
II. TO CONSIDER THE APOSTLE'S DIRECTION TO CHRISTIANS, that they should constantly endeavour to form their whole conduct by a respect to the future judgment, which will be dispensed according to the gospel, to the law of liberty.
1. It ought never to be imagined that the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free was intended to weaken the obligations of our duty, or take away the binding force of the Divine precepts which are indispensable.
2. It would seem by the connection of the apostle's discourse that he designed this particularly as a motive to candour and charity in all our deportment towards men.
3. There is in the exhortation of the text a designed reference to the universality of our obedience, as that only which can give us hope of being acquitted in judgment.
(J. Abernethy, M. A.)Matthew 12:36). And, in accordance with this principle, James dwells largely in this Epistle on the right and wrong use of the tongue.
(A. S. Patterson, D. D.)
(G. H. Fowler.)
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