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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 shewed 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 shewed 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 manifesta by that apology, spoken at the hazard of his credit among men.
The man born blind, whose history is related in the ninth chapter of St. John's gospel, shewed 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
And if men are justified by their words, it is when they are virtuous, and shew 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 shew, 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 shew 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. 40. 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 shewn 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 ä fire, a world of iniquity," James iii. 6. No! be 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 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.
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 shew 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.
There are many who scarce set any guard upon their expressions, as if their tongue was their own, and subject to no law, and they had a right to annoy others at pleasure. Yea some who have had the character of goodness, have transgressed here by falsehood, or hastiness of speech, or other ways.
An offence of this kind is taken notice of in Moses himself, who was so remarkable for meekness. “ They angred him also at the waters of strife, so that it went ill with Moses for their sake; because they provoked his spirit, so that he spake unadvisedly with his lips,” Psalm cvi. 32, 33; referring, probably, to what is recorded in Numb. xx. 10. “And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto him : “ Hear now, ye rebels: must we fetch you water out of this rock ?”
But I need not insist farther on this particular ; though it may be of some use to satisfy us of the difficulty of governing the tongue, that men of excellent characters, who have been almost faultless in other respects, have been surprised into some offences of this sort.
2. Another thing which shews the difficulty of governing the tongue, is the many offences it is liable to. I need not enumerate them all; but it is very obvious that they are numerous.
Some are guilty of a light and frequent use, or bold profanation of the name of God. Others are murmurers and complainers : and because every thing in the world is not to their mind, they take great liberties in complaining of the methods of Providence, or the conduct of their superiors and governors.
There are obscene discourses, called by the apostle “ corrupt” and “ filthy communication,” Eph. iv. 29; Col. iii. 8. which ought not to proceed out of the mouth of a Christian.
Falsehood is supposed to be a very common fault in the dealings of men one with another : wliere truth ought to be strictly regarded, as the great bond of society, and of confidence in each other.
Abusive speeches, proceeding from anger or contempt, are too common among men.
Our blessed Lord has condemned all such expressions when he shews the guilt of those who say to their brother, “ Racha,” or, “ thou fool,” Matt. v. 22. How apt are some, upon occasion of slight provocations, to break forth into very abusive and contemptuous language against those who have, or are supposed to have, disobliged them!
Calumny is another great fault of the tongue, which too many are guilty of, for carrying on selfish designs, and to weaken and disparage their enemies or rivals. And many arts of detraction there are, divulging lesser faults that inight be concealed or passed by, without detriment to any: aggravating the known offences of men, lessening the merit of good and commendable actions, or converting actions that are innocent, or at the most suspicious only, into heinous transgressions.
Flattery is another fault of the tongue, and an abuse of the noble faculty of speech: when, to carry on designs of private interest, we deceive men, by ascribing to them excellencies they are destitute of, and thus fill them with an empty conceit of imaginary worth, and encourage sloth and indolence, or otherwise mislead them to their great detriment.
Ridicule, ill applied, is another fault of the tongue. Some make a mock at sin, and would scoff away the weighty and awful truths of religion. Some endeavour to bring the sacred scriptures into contempt. "Others expose their neighbours by ridiculing the natural defects and infirmities of the body or the mind, which are no real faults, but their own unhappiness.
There is a fault, which we may stile the uncharitableness of the tongue : when men strive to lessen all those who differ from them in opinion, representing them as prejudiced, or destitute of a love of truth, and out of the favour of God and the way of salvation. And accordingly they pronounce hard and unmerciful sentences of condemnation upon them. St. James seems particularly to have an eye to this conduct: and he shews, that it cannot proceed from a principle of true religion. It may indeed consist with a profession of religion : but it is inconsistent with virtue and true piety. Sincere praises of God, and severe and unrighteous sentences against our neighbour, can no more proceed from the same mind, than bitter and sweet water from one and the same fountain. Consequently, if men so condemn their brother, their love of God is not sincere and genuine. So in his argument, ver. 9, 10, “ Therewith bless we God, and therewith curse we men, made after the siinilitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?
Another fault of the tongue, which we are sometimes guilty of, is too great severity of re-proof and censure of real offences and miscarriages. This is one thing which St. James has an eye to in this context, when he cautions against being many masters ; intending to soften the rigour of those who are forward in taking upon them that character. St. Paul has particularly cautioned against the same thing. “ Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye that are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted,” Gal. vi. 1.
Another fault of the tongue is talkativeness, or a multitude of words, in which, as Solomon: says, “ there wanteth not sin,” Prov. x. 19. This fault St. James has an eye to in several of his directions and observations in this epistle, particularly in the text above cited : “Let every man. be swift to hear, slow to speak.” Where he seems to condemn talkativeness, abstracting from the consideration of what is said ; when men speak with little or no regard to, or thought of, doing good or harm. Which, though it may seem an indifferent matter, or of no great consequence, yet an indulgence of such a disposition leads men into many offences; inasmuch as: when innocent or indifferent topics of discourse are exhausted, such will not fail, in order to gratify that disposition, to go into defamation and scandal : so it is in conversation : and the like temper will shew itself on other occasions. Some may desire to be “ teachers of the law,” 1 Tim. i. 7, who are unacquainted with its design : and may affect prolixity of discourse, and. use a multitude of words, not because their subject requires it, but to gratify the disposition to discourse, and an ambition of shining as very knowing men, and fluent speakers.
These and other faults there are of the tongue : and this is one thing that shews the difficulty of governing it.
3. And we shall be farther satisfied of this, if we consider the causes and springs of these faults: and there are many of them. This was observed by St. James. Does he say of the tongue • at ver. 6, « That it setteth on fire the whole course of nature ?" He adds :. ~ And it is set on
fire of hell.” There are within bad principles, that give the tongue this wrong direction, and set it on work for mischief. Blasphemy, or evil-speaking, is one of those defilements which our Lord says “ come from the heart,” that is, from some bad disposition there. And St. James, ver. 14, 15, “ If ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom is not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish.”
The causes of the offences of the tongue are such as these. Unbelief and discontent. These were the causes of the murmurings and complaints of the people of Israel against God and Moses, in the wilderness: and the many murmurings and complaints of men in all ages, are owing to the like causes. Other springs and principles of faulty discourse are inordinate selflove, pride, arrogance, envy and ill-will, contempt of other men, and a disregard to their interests, covetousness, emulation and ambition. These lead men into falsehood and defamation, for promoting their own gain, and lessening those whom they envy, or whose influence stands in their way. St. Paul speaks of some who “ taught things which they ought not for filthy lucre's sake.” Tit. 1. 11. Some depart from the truth, and forward erroneous conceits, because they are pleasing. Detraction is one way of lessening those who are eminent, and of carrying a point against them. St. John had experience of this, and therefore says in his third epistle: “ I wrote unto the church : but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the pre-eminence, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words.”
These, and other causes there are of the offences of the tongue. And when it is considered how difficult it is to root all these bad principles out of the heart of man, it must be apparent, that governing the tongue is no easy thing: for “ out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh,” Matt. xii. 34. The streams will partake of the qualities of the fountain ; and aecording to the root, so will the fruit be.
II. In the second place some arguments should be mentioned, to induce us to use our best endeavours to bridle the tongue.
And St. James does presently furnish us with three considerations to this purpose : first, the importance of the thing to the good of the world. Secondly, its importance to us : forasmuch as without it our religion would be vain. And thirdly, it is a great perfection.
1. The importance of this matter. St. James has illustrated this by several instances and comparisons, the “ bit in the horse's mouth, the helm of ships,” and “ fire," a spark of which kindles into a devouring flame. That is, the use or abuse of the tongue is of much importance, and great things, for good or evil, are effected thereby, in the state, in lesser societies, and among particular persons. By the right use of the tongue truth is recommended, virtue promoted, the peace and happiness of mankind advanced. By a perverse employment of speech the peace of society, of fainilies, and particular persons, is interrupted and disturbed : the interests of error are promoted, instead of those of truth : good designs are obstructed, or quite defeated : the reputation of innocent, and even excellent men, is blasted: seeds of animosity and dissension are sown among brethren, friendships broken and dissolved, and many bad effects produced, more than can be easily numbered.
How much did Joseph suffer by the calumny of his mistress ! how long, before his reputation could be vindicated, or his innocence cleared up! And sometimes the reputation of the innocent and virtuous is for ever ruined by malicious and artful detraction. We have a remarkable instance of the bad effect of a studied misrepresentation of things in the history of David. When he fled from Jerusalem, on occasion of Absalom's rebellion, Ziba, servant of Mephiboshethi
, son of Jonathan, came to David, bringing him presents. “ And David said unto him: Where is thy master? And Ziba said unto the king : Behold, he abideth at Jerusalem : for he said : To day shall the house of Israel restore me to the kingdom of my father. Then said the king to Ziba: Behold, thine are all that pertained unto Mephibosheth,” 2 Sam. xvi. 3, 4. But when David returned victorious, and in safety, to Jerusalem, it appeared, that during the time of his absence, Mephibosheth bad lived with all the outward tokens of mourning and affliction, without putting on his usual ornaments, or taking the refreshments, customary in times of peace and prosperity: “ And when he' met the king, David said unto him: Wherefore wentest thou not with me, Mephibosheth ? And he answered: My lord, O king, my servant deceived me. For thy servant said : I will saddle me an ass, that I may ride thereon, and go to the king, because thy servant is lame. And he has slandered thy servant' unto my lord the king. But my lord the king is an angel of God. Do therefore what is good in thy eyes."
Do therefore what is good in thy eyes." What now is the answer,