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When Peter answered, and said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," Matt. xvi. 16, our Lord declared him blessed. At another time, when many forsook him, and walked no more with him, and he asked the disciples, whether they also would go away, Peter answered, "Lord, to whom should we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we know, and are assured, that thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," John vi. 68. Peter thereby showed a good and virtuous disposition of mind. Though he was not perfect, and upon some occasions manifested an undue affection for earthly things; yet he had a superior and prevailing regard for things divine and heavenly.
Nicodemus too showed himself a good man by his words. He was sincere though defective. He came to Jesus by night, and made an honest profession: "Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God. For no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him," John iii. 2. Some good while after this, when the council had sent forth officers to take Jesus, and they returned with a great character of him and his discourses, and the pharisees were thereupon offended, "Nicodemus said unto them; Doth our law judge any man before it hear him, and know what he does?" John vii. 50, 51. He had a sincere respect for the rules of justice and equity, as he plainly manifests by that apology, spoken at the hazard of his credit among
The man born blind, whose history is related in the ninth chapter of St. John's gospel, showed an honest and virtuous mind by his words. His eyes had been opened on a sabbath-day. The pharisees pretended to take offence at that circumstance, and examined the man about his cure; who gave them a clear and distinct account how his eyes had been opened. After much discourse they say unto him: "We know that God spake unto Moses. As for this man,
we know not from whence he is. He answered and said unto them: Why, herein is a marvellous thing, that ye know not from whence he is. And yet he has opened my eyes. Now, we know, that God heareth not sinners. But if any man be a worshipper of God, and doth his will, him he heareth. Since the world began, was it not heard, that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind. If this man were not of God, he could do nothing." This resolute defence of the character of Jesus, in the view of much disgrace, and particularly of excommunication, which he afterwards underwent, manifested a grateful, and virtuous, and
religious disposition of mind. Men therefore may be justified by their words.
IV. Nothing now remains, but that I mention a remark or two by way of application.
1. No one may hence infer, that he may be saved by a fair profession of religion without good works.
Our Lord assures us, that men's words will be taken into consideration in the day of judgment. And by them they may be acquitted or condemned. But other things will be considered also, both thoughts and outward actions. And if men are justified by their words, it is when they are virtuous, and show a good habit and disposition of mind. And when good words proceed from a good mind, they will not be alone. There will be good works, as well as good words.
2. We have here a mark, which may be of good use for determining our sincerity or insincerity.
This is a thing about which sometimes we would be glad to be satisfied. Men may in a good measure judge of us by our words. But we can better judge concerning this matter ourselves; because upon recollection we may know, what are our more ordinary discourses. And thereby we may judge of the temper of our minds, and what is the "abundance" of our hearts. Are our discourses generally unprofitable, uncharitable, censorious, or worse, tending to excite vicious inclinations and propensities, or to lessen the obligations and evidences of religion? Our words then show, we are not good men, and by our words we may be condemned. On the other hand, are we often engaged in such discourses as tend to the edification of others? or are they calculated to improve ourselves, that we may receive instruction, and confirmation in truth and virtue? We have reason to be pleased with such an evidence of a religious temper of mind.
3. The doctrine of this text teaches us to be careful of our words. For they will be taken into account in the day of judgment.
Whatever be the direct meaning of the expression idle, we ought not to make it a foundation of needless scruples: as if we were restrained from that mirth which is innocent, and consistent with sobriety, and diligence in our callings; and only tends to refresh our spirits, and fit for more important business. At the same time the observations of our Lord in the text and context plainly teach us the moment of our words, and that they are of greater consequence than
some imagine. We should therefore be careful, that our words be not such as tend to the detriment, but to the good of our neighbour; that they do not favour irreligion and wickedness; but that we take the side of religion and virtue in our discourses. Let us cheerfully applaud the well meant endeavours of all men. Let us acknowledge and encourage meekness, modesty, and other amiable virtues in those who are not of our mind in some speculative points. Nor let us justify, but rather condemn and discountenance, pride, conceit, censoriousness, rigour, and uncharitableness in those who are of the same sentiments with us. By such words we may be justified. They show a religious and virtuous mind. They may not be approved by all men; but they will be remembered by the equitable Judge in the great day of account.
And indeed this declaration of our Lord may be reckoned very gracious and encouraging. There are words, as well as works, that shall be rewarded. And there is a fitness in it, as we have seen. For by our words we may do a great deal of good. And if from our hearts we design, and actually do by our discourses honour God, serve religion, and good men, or reclaim the bad, and turn the feet and hearts of sinners to righteousness; such words shall be joined with good works, and add to the recompences of the future life. 4. Lastly, we may hence discern, that the Lord Jesus was a most excellent person, and is entitled to the esteem, respect, and gratitude of all sincere friends of religion and virtue.
It is one part of his excellent character, that " never man spake like him," John vii. 46. And he was ever ready to good words. Every where he instils good doctrine. He embraceth every opportunity to inculcate the principles and duties of religion, the love of God and our neighbour. He taught not only at the temple, and in the synagogues, but in every other place, and in every company that was favoured with his presence. He preached the gospel to the poor, as well as to the rich. And the most weighty things are often spoken by him in a free and familiar manner. A large part of his instructive, edifying, enlivening discourses, recorded in the gospels, were delivered in conversation with his disciples or others; and always free from partiality and ostentation; seeking not his own glory, but the glory of him that sent him, and the benefit of those to whom he was sent, and with whom he conversed.
THE DIFFICULTY OF GOVERNING THE TONGUE.
If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able to bridle the whole body. James iii. 2.
ST. JAMES is much in correcting the faults of the tongue. Possibly the Jewish believers, to whom he writes, were too liable to be infected with the faults very common at that time in the rest of their countrymen, who had an impetuous and turbulent zeal; who were conceited of themselves and despised others; and were imposing and uncharitable. That may be one reason why this writer insists so much, and so frequently, upon this matter.
In the very first chapter, ver. 19, he exhorts with affectionate earnestness: "Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath." And again, ver. 26," If any man among you seemeth to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, deceiving his own heart, that man's religion is vain." In this chapter he enlargeth upon the point. Some of his expressions are extremely strong, saying, that "the tongue can no man tame:" James iii. 8. meaning, however, no more than that it is very difficult for a man to govern his own tongue, or to teach others that skill. For we are not to suppose that he intends to say, that it is altogether impossible. This may be inferred from his exhortations. He would not be at the pains to admonish and argue as he does, if there were no hopes of success. He would not, then, have said; "My brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak." He would not have argued, and shown the inconsistency of " blessing God," and "cursing men," James iii. 9; nor have added: "My brethren, these things ought not so to be," ver. 10. Such admonitions and reproofs are delivered upon the supposition of the happy effects of great care in this matter. And here, in the text, it is admitted, that some may, and do attain to a great degree of perfection in this respect.
We are not to suppose, then, that St. James designs to say, the government of the tongue is absolutely impossible. Much less are we to think that he intends to censure the faculty of speech, when he says, "the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity," James iii. 6. No; he only aims, by
emphatical expressions, and pathetic arguments, to correct the abuses of it; which were very great and frequent, as it seems, among the christians to whom he writes, as well as among many other persons. David sometimes speaks of his tongue, as his glory," it being fitted to celebrate the praises of God. Indeed the communication which we have with each other, and the many advantages of society, depend upon it. And the organs of speech are admirable. The dispositions made for it are beyond the description of the most eloquent tongue, and above all the force of human language. Nor is it at all strange, that the thing formed should not be able to comprehend, or fully commend the wisdom and skill of its Former.
St. James begins this chapter with a caution against affecting the office and character of a teacher, as was very common among the Jewish people, and against exercising it with too great rigour and severity. "My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation" if we offend, which it is very difficult to avoid: "for in many things we all offend. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able to bridle the whole body." But if there be any man among you that 'does not offend in speech, he is an excellent man, and able 'to manage all the other parts of the body: or, as some thereby understand, the whole church, the body of christian people among whom he resides. He is qualified for the office and station of a teacher of others, and is likely to 'be very useful and serviceable therein.'
In farther discoursing on this text, I shall observe the following method:
I. I shall show somewhat distinctly the difficulty of governing the tongue.
II. I shall propose some motives and considerations, tending to engage us to do our best to govern the tongue.
III. I intend to lay down some rules and directions which may be of use to assist us in obtaining this excellence and perfection.
I. In the first place I would show the difficulty of governing the tongue, the point so largely insisted on, and so emphatically represented in this chapter.
The difficulty of this will appear by these particulars; the great number of those who offend in word, the many faults which the tongue is liable to, and the springs and causes of transgressions of this kind.
1. The difficulty of governing the tongue may be argued from hence, that great numbers of men offend in their words.