James Commentaries 1 - Multiple Illustrations from various sources
JAMES thrice reiterates his point in this passage, and each repetition closes a branch of his argument. In verse 17 he draws the inference from his illustration of a worthy sympathy which does nothing; in verse 20 he deduces the same conclusion from the speech put into the mouth of an imaginary speaker; in verse 24 he draws it from the life of Abraham. We shall best get hold of the scope of these verse, by taking them three parts separately.
I. Now, most misconceptions of a writer’s meaning are due to imperfect definition of terms.
James was no metaphysician, and he does not stop to put precisely what he means by’ faith.’ Clearly he meant by it the full evangelical meaning of trust when he used it in the earlier part of the letter (James 1:3, 6; 2:1-5). As clearly he here means a mere intellectual belief of religious truth, a barren orthodoxy. If that undeniable explanation of his terminology is kept steadily in view, much of the difficulty which has been found in bringing his teaching into harmony with Paul’s melts away at once. There is a distinct difference of tone and point of view between the two, but they entirely agree in the worthlessness of such a ‘faith,’ if faith it can be called. Probably Paul would not have called it so, but James accepts the ‘saying’ of the man whom he is confuting, and consents to call his purely intellectual-belief faith. And then he crushes it to atoms as hollow and worthless, in which process Paul would gladly have lent a hand.
We may observe that verse 14 begins with supposing the case of a mere lip ‘faith,’ while verse 17 widens its conclusion to include not only that, but any ‘faith,’ however real, which does not lead to works. The logic of the passage would, perhaps, hang better together if verse 14 had run ‘if a man have faith’; but there is keen irony as well as truth in the suggestion that a faith which has no deeds often has abundant talk. The people who least live their creeds are not seldom the people who shout loudest about them. The parslysis which affects the arms does not, in these cases, interfere with the tongue. James had seen plenty of that kind of faith, both among Pharisees and Jewish Christians, and he had a holy horror of loose tongues (James 3:2-12). That kind of faith is not extinct yet, and we need to urge James’s question quite as much as he did: ‘Can that faith save?’ Observe the emphasis on ‘ that’ which the Revised Version rightly gives.
The homely illustration of the very tender sympathy which gushes inwards, and does nothing to clothe naked backs or fill empty stomachs, perhaps has a sting in it, Possibly the very orthodox Jewish Christians with whom James is contending were less willing to help poor brethren than were the Gentile Christians.
But, in any case, there is no denying the force of the parallel. Sympathy, like every other emotion, is meant to influence action. If it does not, what is the use of it? What is the good of getting up fire in the furnace, and making a mighty roaring of steam, if it all escapes at the waste-pipe, and drives no wheels? And what is the good of a ‘faith’ which only rushes out at the escape-pipe of talk? It is ‘dead in itself.’ Romans 2:17-29 shows Paul’s way of putting the same truth. Emotion and beliefs which do not shape conduct are worthless Faith, if it have not works, is dead.
II. The same conclusion is arrived at by another road in verses 18-20.
James introduces an imaginary speaker, who replies to the man who says that he has faith. This new interlocutor ‘says’ his say too. But he is not objecting, as has been sometimes thought, to James, but to the first speaker, and he is expressing James’s own thought, which the Apostle does not utter in his own person, perhaps because he would avoid the appearance of boasting of his own deeds. To take this speaker as opposing James brings hopeless confusion, What does the new speaker say? He takes up the first one’s assertion of having ‘faith’; he will not say that he himself has it, but he challenges the other man to show his, if he can, by any other way than by exhibiting the fruits of faith, while he himself is prepared and content to be tested by the same test. That is to say, talk does not prove the possession of faith; the only possible demonstration that one has it is deeds, which are its fruits. If a man has (true) faith, it will mould his conduct. If he has nothing to produce but his bare assertion, then he cannot show it at all; and if no evidence of its existence is forthcoming, it does not exist.
Motion is the test of life. A ‘faith’ which does nothing, which moves no limb, is a corpse. On the other hand, if grapes grow ruddy and sweet in their clusters, there must be a vine on which they grow, though its stem and root may be unseen. ‘What is bred in the bone will come out in the flesh.’ True faith will be fruitful. Is not this Paul’s doctrine too? Does not he speak of ‘faith that worketh by love?’ Is it not his principle, too, that faith is the source of conduct, the active principle of the Christian life, and that if there are no results of it in the life, there is none of it in the heart?
But the second speaker has a sharp dart of irony in his quiver (verse 13). ‘You plume yourself on your monotheistic creed, do you, and you think that that is enough to make you a child of God’s? Well, that is good, as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. You have companions in it, for the demons believe it still more thoroughly than you do; and, what is more, it produces more effect on them than on you. You do nothing in consequence of your belief; they shudder, at any rate — a grim result, but one showing that their belief goes deeper than yours. The arrow gains in point and keenness if we observe that James quotes the very words which are contained in the great profession of monotheism which was recited morning and evening by every Jew (Deuteronomy 6:4, etc.). James seems, in verse 20, to speak again in his own name, and to reassert his main thought as enforced by this second argument.
III. He has been arguing from the very nature of faith, and the relation between it and conduct.
Now he turns to history and appeals to Abraham’s case. In these verses he goes over the same ground as Paul does in Romans 5., and there is a distinct verbal contradiction between verse 24 here and Romans 3:28; but it is only verbal. Are the two apostles writing in ignorance of each other’s words, or does the one refer to the other, and, if so, which is the earlier? These are interesting questions, to deal with which satisfactorily would more than exhaust our space.
No doubt the case of Abraham was a commonplace in rabbinical teaching, and both Paul and James had been accustomed to hear his history commented upon and tortured in all sorts of connections. The mere reference to the patriarch is no proof of either writer having known of the other; but the manner of it raises a presumption in that direction, and if either is referring to the other, it is easier to understand Paul if he is alluding to James, than James as alluding to Paul.
Their apparent disagreement is only apparent. For what are the’ works’ to which James ascribes justifying power? Verse 22 distinctly answers the question. They are acts which spring from faith, and which in turn, as being its fruits, ‘perfect’ it, as a tree is perfect when it has manifested its maturity by bearing. Surely Paul’s doctrine is absolutely identical with this He too held that, on the one hand, faith creates work, and on the other, works perfect faith. The works which Paul declares are valueless, and which he calls ‘the works of the law,’ are not those which James asserts ‘justify.’ The faith which James brands as worthless is not that which Paul proclaims as the condition of justifying; the one is a mere assent to a creed, the other is a living trust in a living Person.
James points to the sacrifice of Isaac as ‘justifying’ Abraham, and has in mind the divine eulogium, ‘Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me,’ but he distinctly traces that transcendent act of an unquestioning devotion to the ‘faith’ which wrought with it, and was perfected by it. He quotes the earlier divine declaration (Genesis 15:6) as ‘fulfilled’ at that later time, By which very expression is implied, not only that the root of the sacrifice was faith, but that the words were true in a yet higher sense and completer degree, when that sacrifice had ‘perfected’ the patriarch’s faith.
The ultimate conclusion in verse 24 has to be read in the light of these considerations, and then it appears plainly that there is no contradiction in fact between the two apostles. ‘The argument.., has no bearing on St. Paul’s doctrine, its purport being, in the words of John Bunyan, to insist that "at the day of doom men shall be judged according to their fruit." It will not be said then, Did you believe? but, Were you doers or talkers only?’ (Mayor, Epistle of St.. James, LXXXVIII).
No doubt, the two men look at the truth from a somewhat different standpoint. The one is intensely practical, the other goes deeper. The one fixes his eye on the fruits, the other digs down to the root. To the one the flow of the river is the more prominent; to the other, the fountain from which it rises, But they supplement, and do not contradict, each other. A shrewd old Scotsman once criticised an elaborate ‘Harmony’ of the Gospels, by the remark that the author had ‘spent a heap of pains in making four men agree that had never cast [fallen] out.’ We may say the same of many laborious reconciliations of James, the urgent preacher of Christian righteousness, and Paul, the earnest proclaimer that ‘a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.’
|‘THERE is a recurrence to earlier teaching in James 1:19, 26, which latter verse suggests the figure of the bridle. James has drunk deep into Old Testament teaching as to the solemn worth of speech, and into Christ’s declaration that by their words men will be justified or condemned.
No doubt, Eastern peoples are looser tongued than we Westerns are; but modern life, with its great development of cities and its swarm of newspapers and the like, has heightened the power of spoken and printed words, and made James’s exhortations even more necessary. His teaching here gathers round several images- the bridle, the fire, the untamed creature, the double fountain. We deal with these in order.
I. No doubt, in the infant Church, with its flexible organisation, there were often scenes very strange to our eyes, such as Paul hints at in 1 Corinthians 14:26-33, where many voices of would-be teachers contended for a hearing. James would check that unwholesome eagerness by the thought that teachers who do not practice what they preach will receive a heavier judgment than those who did not set up to be instructors. He humbly classes himself with the teachers. The ‘for’ of verse 2 introduces a reason for the advice in verse 1 — since it is hard to avoid falls, and harder in respect to speech than action, it is a dangerous ambition to be a teacher.
That thought leads on to the series of considerations as to the government of the tongue. He who can completely keep it under command is a ‘perfect’ man, because the difficulty of doing so is so great that the attainment of it is a test of perfection. James is like the Hebrew prophets, in that he does not so much argue as illustrate. His natural speech is imagery, and here he pours out a stream of it. The horse’s bridle and the ship’s rudder may be taken together as both illustrating the two points that the tongue guides the body, and that it is intended that the man should guide the tongue. These two ideas are fused together here. The bridle is put into the mouth, and what acts on the mouth influences the direction of the horse’s course. The rudder is but a little bit of wood, hut its motion turns the great ship, even when driven by wild winds. ‘So the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things,’ which boasting is not false, for the whole point of the passage is that that little member has large power.
Is it true, as James says, that it governs our actions as the bridle does the horse, Or the rudder the ship? No doubt, many sins go straight from the inner chambers of the heart’s desires out into the world of action without.going round by the way of speech; but still, if we think of the immense power of our own words and of others in setting our activities in motion, of the dreadful harvest of sin which has of ten sprung from one tempting word, of the ineffaceable traces of pollution which some vile book leaves in memory and heart, of the good and evil which have been wrought by spoken or printed words, and that never more truly than to-day, when a flood of talk all but drowns the world, we shall not think James exaggerating in the awful weight he gives to speech as the mother of action.
His other point is that this guiding power needs guidance. A firm yet gentle hand touches the rein, and the sensitive mouth yields to the light pressure. The steerman’s hand pushes or draws the tiller an inch from or towards him, and the huge vessel yaws accordingly. Speech is often loose. Most men set less careful watch on the door of their lips than of their actions; but it would be wiser to watch the inner gate, which leads from thought to speech, than the outer one, which leads from speech to act. Idle words, rash words, unconsidered words, free-flowing words, make up much of our conversation. ‘His tongue ran away with him’ is too often true. It is hard but possible, and it is needful, to guide the helm, to keep a tight hand on the reins.
II. The next figure is that of the fire, suggested by the illustration of the small spark which sets a great forest ablaze. Drop a match or a spark from a locomotive or a pipe in the prairie grass, and we know what comes. The illustration was begun to carry on the contrast between the small member and its great results; but James catches fire, and goes off after the new suggestion, ‘The tongue is a fire.’
Our space forbids discussing the interpretation of the difficult verse 6, but the general bearing of it is clean It reiterates under a fresh figure the thought of the preceding verses as to the power of the tongue to set the whole body in motion. Only the imagery is more lurid, and suggests more fatal issues from an unhallowed tongue’s influence. It ‘defileth the whole body.’ Foul speech, heard in schools or places of business, read in filthy books, heard in theatres, has polluted many a young life, and kindled fires which have destroyed a man, body and soul. Speech is like the axle which, when it gets heated, sets the wheel on fire. And what comes of the train then? And what set the axle ablaze? The sulphurous flames from the pit of Gehenna. No man who knows life, especially among young boys and young men, will think that James has lost the government of his tongue in speaking thus.
III. Next comes the figure of the untamable wild beast.
e need not pin James down to literal accuracy any more than to scientific classification in his zoology. His general statement is true enough for his purpose, for man has long ago tamed, and still continues to use as tamed, a crowd of animals of most diverse sorts, fierce and meek, noxious and harmless.
But, says James, in apparent contradiction to himself, there is one creature that resists all such efforts. Then what .is the sense of your solemn exhortations, James, if ‘the tongue can no man tame’? In that case he who is able to bridle it must be more than a perfect man. Yes, James believed that, though he says little about it. He would have us put emphasis on ‘no man.’ Man’s impossibilities are Christ’s actualities. So we have here to fall back on James’s earlier word, If any of you lack,… let him ask of God,… and it shall be given him.’ The position of ‘man’ in the Greek is emphatic, and suggests that the thought of divine help is present to the Apostle.
He adds a characterisation of the tongue, which fits in with his image of an untamable brute: ‘It is a restless evil,’ like some caged but unsubdued wild animal, ever pacing uneasily up and down its den; ‘full of deadly poison,’ like some captured rattlesnake. The venom spurted out by a calumnious tongue is more deadly than any snake poison. Blasphemous words, or obscene words, shot into the blood by one swift dart of the fangs, may corrupt its whole current, and there is no Pasteur to expel the virus.
IV. The last image, that of the fountain, is adduced to illustrate the strange inconsistencies of men, as manifested in their speech. Words of prayer and words of cursing come from the same lips. No doubt these hot tempered, and sometimes ferociously religious, Jewish Christians, to whom James speaks, had some among them whose portraits James is drawing here. ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth!’ is a strange sequel to ‘Blessed be he, the God of our fathers.’ But the combination has often been heard since. To Deums and anathemas have succeeded one another m strange union, and religious controversy has not always been conducted with perfect regard to James’s precepts.
Of course when the Apostle gibbets the grotesque inconsistency of such a union, he is not to be taken as allowing cursing, if it only keeps clear of ‘blessing God.’ Since the latter is the primary duty of all, and the highest exercise of the great gift of speech, anything inconsistent with it is absolutely forbidden, and to show the inconsistency is to condemn the act.
Further, the assertion that ‘salt water cannot yield sweet’ implies that the ‘cursing’ destroys the reality of the verbal ‘blessing God.’ If a man says both, the imprecation is his genuine voice, and the other is mere wind.
The fountain is deeper than the tongue. From the heart are the issues of life. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh, and clear, pure waters will not well out thence unless the heart has been cleansed by Christ entering into it. Only when that tree of life is cast into the waters are they made sweet. When Christ governs us, we can govern our hearts and our lips, and through these our whole bodies and all their activities.
|James 3:12 Figs and Olive Berries
by C H Spurgeon
“Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries” — James 3:12.
There is only one answer to the question; of course, the fig tree can do nothing of the kind. It would be quite contrary to its nature, and hence the apostle argues that Christians ought, to act according to their nature. If we are indeed the children of God, we should act as his children, and always act as his children. We are not consistent if at one time we speak as heirs of heaven should speak, and at another time speak as the heirs of wrath speak. James truly tells us that a fountain cannot, at the same time pour forth sweet water and bitter, salt water and fresh; and be therefore rightly argues that from the same mouth there must not proceed blessing and cursing, there must be consistency of conduct in those who are the Lord’s.
I am going, in the first place, to take the question of our text out of its literal connection; and in the second place to come closer to it; and perhaps in the third place to come closer still.
I. So, first, “can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries?” No; and It Is Very Undesirable That It Should; there is no need for it to do so, and there would be no gain if it should do so.
I am, of course, taking the question altogether apart from its connection.
A fig tree is better employed in bearing figs than it would be in bearing olives. The olive tree is meant to bear olives, and the fig tree to bear figs, and it, would not be any advantage if it were to leave off bearing figs, and begin bearing olives, or if it alternately bore figs and olives.
Now, beloved friends, all of us that are as trees of the. Lord’s right-hand planting are bringing forth fruit, to his praise and glory. If we are carrying out his great purpose concerning us, we are producing the peaceable fruits of righteousness, the fruit of the Spirit, fruit, unto holiness; but, this fruit does not always take the same shape in every one of us. We cannot all do the same work; and even when our work is similar, we have various ways of doing it. I cannot do your work, my brother or sister, and you cannot do mine, and the two of us together cannot do a third person’s work. There is a certain tree that produces a particular kind of fruit, and a certain plant on which a special sort of seed is found; but no tree produces all kinds of fruit, and no plant bears all sorts of seeds. So is it in the Church of God; all true believers are members of the mystical body of Christ, but all the members have not the same office. It would be very foolish if any one member of the body were to attempt to perform the work of all the organs of the body; or, indeed, of any one beside its own. The best thing is for the eye to see, and let the ear to the hearing; for the ear to hear, and let, the mouth do the speaking; for the feet to carry the body wherever the brain directs, and for the hands to perform their own special handicraft, and not to usurp the office of the organs of locomotion.
But why is it that the fig tree cannot bear olive berries, and that one Christian cannot do all kinds of work? I answer, first, because the variety is itself charming. If anybody had the power to destroy all the fruit trees in the world, and then to make a tree, that would bear all the fruits at once, what a pity it would be! It is much better to have three trees to bear figs, olives, and grapes than to have one tree bearing figs on one bough, olives on another, and grapes on a third. It might seem a fine thing to have Christians who could do everything, — men who could preach and pray and sing, who could be entrusted with great wealth and great talents, who could lead the Church and who could at the same time control the world, but that is not. God’s plan for any of his children. There is a beautiful variety in the Church of God; one exercises this gift, and another exercises that; one is entrusted with one form of grace, and another is entrusted with equal grace but in quite a different form. It would be no improvement if all flowers were of one color, or if all precious stones were of equal brilliance or if all stars gave exactly the same amount of light. Variety is a great part of beauty, and God delights to have it so.
We have here, in the next place, a display of divine sovereignty. It is God’s will that makes yon bird that looks the sun in the face into an eagle, and that other that sits moodily on the ivy-mantled tower into an owl. It is he who makes one of his creatures into an archangel and another into an aphid crawling on a rose-leaf. None may ask him why he acts thus, for he has the right to do as he pleases; and, as Elihu said to Job, “He giveth not account of any of his matters;” or, as Paul put it to the Romans, “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor? It is quite certain that there are great differences among men; in the very size and shape of our bodies, and in the natural conformation of our minds, we are not all alike; let us say what we may, there are differences of capacity which are with us from our birth, even as God intended that there should be. He is in this matter, as in everything else, both Lord and King; so what folly and sin it is for us to quarrel with him, about our condition, or to attempt to arraign him before our judgment seat! If God makes some other brother to be like the fruitful tree that bears olive berries, shall I be jealous of him if my fruit is of another kind? Shall I not rather be thankful to resemble the tree that bears figs? And if we two see another brother whose fruit is like the grapes of Eshcol, shall we envy him because we cannot bring forth such welcome clusters? Oh, no but let us all three bless the Lord for the sweetness of the figs, the fatness of the olives, and the lusciousness of the grapes that he enables us severally to produce to his praise and glory.
Further, these diversities of gifts should excite in us humility. What if the olive does bear its rich purple berries? It cannot bear sweet figs; and sweet as the figs are, they cannot supply the oil which gives a relish to the peasants bread, feeds the lamp which lights his cottage in the evening hours, and furnishes the medicine which heals him when he is sick or wounded. When the Lord entrusts thee with talents, my brother, thou art naturally inclined to be proud; but when thou hearest of another whom the Lord has honored far more, do not quarrel either with the Lord or with thy brother, but rejoice that there is someone whose Master thinks he may be trusted to a very high degree, and remember that the responsibilities of thine own position are quite sufficient for thee. I am often amazed at the stupidity of certain, Christians. They will not do what they can do, and they want to do what they cannot do. They are not satisfied with walking, so they take up David’s cry, “Oh that I had wings like a dove!” The Lord knew that they would not make a proper use of wings so he did not give them any. No doubt they think, if they had wings, they would fly away, and be at rest; but I question whether they would be able to rest if they flew away from their right place and the work God has committed to their charge. Many a man is a first-rate Sunday school teacher; but that does not satisfy his ambition, he must be a preacher. When he gets into the pulpit, the only part of his discourse that is appreciated by his hearers is the end of it; yet, he says that he must preach. Many a good worker has been spoilt through imbibing the notion that he must do something for which God has not fitted him. There is a humbling truth, that we cannot do some things which others can do well, just as the fig tree cannot bear olive berries though the olive tree growing close beside it is laden with the precious oily berries.
This fact ought also to promote in us brotherly admiration. It is one of the most beautiful exhibitions of a Christian spirit when a Christian man admires the gifts and graces; of others more than he admires his own; when, instead of thinking of anything in which he excels others, he delights in those things in which they excel him. We ought to emulate the spirit, of that, noble Roman who, when he was beaten at an election, said he was glad that his country had so many better men than himself. It is not always easy to feel, “I am happy in knowing of a brother who is so much more brilliant than I am, for the world sadly needs far more light than I can give.” It is not always easy to play the least important instrument in the band, and to rejoice that somebody else can beat the big drum, or blow the silver cornet; yet that ought to be our feeling. You remember how prettily Bunyan speaks of Christiana and Mercy admiring each other after they had been in the bath: They could not see that glory each one on herself which they could see in each other. Now, therefore, they began to esteem each other better than themselves. ’For you are fairer than I am, said one; and you are more comely than I am,’ said another.” So should Christians see and admire the work of the Spirit in other Christians, and should bless God that there are such gracious men and women in the world; while those who are thus admired should, in their turn, see greater excellence in others than they see in themselves.
And once more, this variety of gifts and graces helps to foster fellowship. I often feel, when I am conversing with some of the poorest and feeblest members of this church, that, I am greatly profited by what they say to me. They usually speak very kindly concerning the comfort they receive from my preaching, and my advice I am able to give them, when they come to see me; but I am certain that I derive benefit from them. It is impossible for two Christian men or women who are in a right state of heart, to converse with one another about the things of God without both of them being thereby spiritually enriched. As different countries have different products, and one nation sends its produce to supply the needs of another nation, and thus, by mutual exchange, commerce is created and each nation’s wealth is increased, so is it in spiritual things. You with your olive berries, and this brother with his figs, and that other brother with his clusters of grapes will interchange your various fruits, and all of you will benefit by the transaction. It is a great blessing for a bold and confident believer to have a talk with a trembling, desponding Christian, and the poor timid soul will be strengthened by coming into contact with the more fully-established saint. The man who has a very sweet disposition is apt to develop a sugariness which is most nauseating, so it will do him good to meet with a Christian who is very straightforward and outspoken; while that brother, by associating with the more gentle spirit, may be kept from becoming too rough and coarse. I need not multiply instances of this helpful fellowship beyond just reminding you of how often, in God’s mercy, a Christian husband and wife are the counterpart and complement of one another, so that what is lacking in one of them is supplied by the other, and vice versa; and thus they both become the better, the holier, the happier, and the more useful in the service of their Lord.
II. Now, in the second place, I am going to take the text more nearly in the way in which it was used by the apostle. “Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries?”
No; It Would Be Altogether Contrary To Its Nature.
It would be a monstrosity, a thing to be wondered at, and stared at as unnatural and absurd if a fig tree started bearing olive berries and it is just as unnatural for a Christian to live in sin. Can he so live as to bear the fruits of iniquity instead of the fruits of righteousness? God forbid that it should be so! If the fig tree should ever bring forth olive berries, we might have good reason to question whether it was a fig tree, for a tree is known by its fruits; so, when one who professes to be a Christian lives as worldings live, there is grave reason to fear that he is a worldling notwithstanding his profession. If we are to know him by his fruits, which is our Lord’s infallible test, how can we imagine that he is a partaker of the divine life when he acts as he does. Inconsistency of life casts a very serious doubt upon many who call themselves the children of God. No wonder they are themselves often the subjects of doubts and fears, as they ought to be; for, if they judge themselves by their fruits, they may well question whether they have ever been born again. Those who are new creatures in Christ Jesus seek to live as he lived so far as it is possible for them to do so.
Besides, if a man for a while brings forth the fruits of righteousness, and then bears the fruits of iniquity, he casts a slur upon all his former goodness. Suppose I saw a fig tree bearing olive berries, and its owner assured me that it bore figs last year, I should say, “Well, I should not think the figs were worth much to judge from the look of those olives.” So, when a man is in a passion, and makes use, of very strong language, perhaps even cursing and swearing as Peter did, one naturally asks, “Can that man ever have been a Christian?” “Well,” says someone who knows him, “he used to speak very kindly and lovingly, and seemed to be a sincere Christian.” That may have been the case with him, but it is a poor sort of Christianity that can even occasionally produce such iniquity. May God save all of us from bearing two kinds of fruit in this unnatural and dishonoring fashion! Suppose the whole Church of God should act thus, and at one time be eminent for holiness and at another time be notorious for sin, what would be the consequence? Suppose, for instance, that certain people were very particular about their attendance at public worship, and yet were known to frequent the theater, would it not be a strange state of things? Should we judge them to be Christians or worldlings? If a man is sometimes a sinner and sometimes a saint, we should need to have an almanack to tell us which he was likely to be, or a tide-table to let us know whether, like the tides of the sea, he was ebbing or flowing. Think, too, what the consequences would be to such a man if he were to die, or if the Lord were to come just when he was bearing the fruits of unrighteousness. I am only imagining, a monstrous case, such a case as must not be ours. O my dear friends, let it never be so with you, if God be God, serve him and follow him; or if the devil be God, serve him; but to try to serve God and the devil at the same time, is to attempt a compromise that God abhors, and which even Satan is not mean enough to approve. Even his disciples laugh to scorn those inconsistent professors who seek to serve God and mammon, and to walk at the same time in the narrow way that leadeth unto life and in the broad road that leads to destruction. The other day, I saw a man trying to walk on both sides of the street at once; of course, he was drunk; and whenever I see a man trying, spiritually, to do the same sort of thing, — attempting to serve God and to serve the devil too, — I know that he is intoxicated, or infatuated, under a fatal delusion, or he would never imagine that such a combination could be possible. Oil and water will not mix, nor light and darkness, nor saintliness and worldliness; you must have one or the other, you cannot have both at once; so “choose ye this day whom ye will serve,” Christ or Belial, you cannot serve both, for “no servant can serve two masters.” The true Church of Christ is “fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners;” but an inconsistent church, a double-dealing church, a wordly church, (what an anomaly!) a church that holds with the hare and runs with the hounds, a church that makes a great profession but has little or nothing worth having in possession, such a church is the scorn of the world, a mere blown-up football for men and devils to kick wherever they will. An unholy man or woman who pretends to be a Christian, is a stench in the nostrils of the thrice-holy God, and a by-word and reproach among those who make no pretense of being the Lord’s. How can you rebuke sin in others while you are living in it yourself? How can you preach the Christ whom you dishonor in your daily life? How can you reprove worldliness when you are yourself worldly? We speak with contempt of Satan rebuking sin, and of the pot calling the kettle black, so, if in any degree any of us have been guilty of this great crime against, God, may we; now sincerely repent of our sin, and may the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit preserve us from such evil walking for all time to come!
III. Now, thirdly, — and this is the point upon which I want most strongly to insist, — It Is Impossible For A Fig Tree To Bear Olive Berries, and it is impossible for an unconverted man to produce the fruits of righteousness, that is a task which is altogether beyond his power.
The real text of this last division of my sermon is this, —
“Ye Must Be Born Again.”
Unless you are regenerated, born from above by a new and heavenly birth, you are not Christians, whatever you may be called, and you cannot, produce the fruit which is acceptable to God any more than a fig tree can produce olive berries.
Let us suppose that we are in the South of France, and that we are standing by a fine fig tree. We want to make it bring forth olives and we will, for the sake of my argument, imagine that it is quite willing to do so, how shall we go to work?
As re-naming the fig tree is no use, let us try to trim it to the shape of an olive tree. That will not be an easy task, for the two trees bear very slight resemblance to one another; still, we will see what we can do with axe, and knife, and shears, to make the fig tree look like an olive. When we come again, at the proper season, to gather the olive berries, how many shall we find? Not one, though we search diligently from the trunk to the topmost bough. If we have not ruined the tree by our cutting and shaping, we may find figs on it, but we shall gather no olives there. So we may be very careful in trying to shape our children’s lives and characters, we may teach them to be truthful, honest, upright, amiable, heroic, and so on, and we may succeed so far that some of them may even look like young Christians; but if the grace of God has not made them to be new creatures in Christ Jesus, all our training, and trimming, and shaping, and directing will leave them unsaved, and we shall search then in vain to find in them “the fruit of the Spirit.” There is far more needed than anything we can do; there must, be a deeper, more enduring work than making them look and act like Christians, there must be a divine work in the heart, a complete change of nature which can only be wrought by the effectual working of the Holy Spirit.
In our next attempt to get olives from the fig tree, we will treat the fig tree as if it were an olive tree. When at Mentone, I have often noticed the men in the olive gardens digging a trench all round the trees, and filling it with old rags; and, somehow, the trees seem to draw suitable nutriment out of that strange sort of manure. Very well then, let us treat our fig tree in the same fashion, and dig about it, and dung it with all the old rags we can find. We do so, and wait patiently for the result, and then we discover that we have wasted all those precious bales of rags which might have made the olive trees bring forth an abundant crop, for there is not a berry on the fig tree, and probably even fewer figs than it would have produced if we had given it the nourishment suited to its nature. So you may take your young people, and treat them as if they were Christians, and do all that you can to nourish the divine life that has not yet entered their souls; but all your efforts will be in vain, for you cannot give them new natures, you cannot make the children, of Adam into the children of God. You will do far more lasting good by entreating the Lord to accomplish the great work of grace which is altogether beyond your power, and by teaching each unsaved one, old or young, to pray David’s prayer, “Create in, me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.”
Here is our fig tree without a single olive berry on it; now let us surround it with olive trees, and see what a change that will make in it. The tree is very lonely where it is, so we will see what helpful associations will do for it. It will be another difficult task for us, but we will not shirk it, for we are determined to transplant it right into the middle of an olive garden; and we will tie it up to a fruitful olive tree, and then, when it has no other trees near it, surely it must bear olives. But will it? Oh, no when the time of figs arrives, it will bear figs unless we have destroyed its fruit-bearing power by disturbing it; but there will be no olives on it except those that fall among its branches when the tree by its side is beaten to yield up its thousands of purple, oily berries. So, here, is an, unconverted man right in the midst of Christian people. He is not very comfortable, for he feels that he is out of his element; he would be much more at home in a public house or at a music hall, or at home reading a novel or the newspaper; yet here he is surrounded by Christians. Possibly, like the fig tree tied to an olive tree, the man is united to a godly wife, yet it is not enough to make him a Christian. He has a gracious, loving daughter; she has persuaded him to come with her to-night in the hope that he may get a blessing here, as I most sincerely hope he may. But, my dear friend, let me tell you that it is not sufficient for you to have a Christian wife, or Christian children, or Christian parents, unless there is a work of grace within your own heart, unless your very nature is changed by the Holy Spirit, so that you are made a new creature in Christ Jesus, all these hallowed relationships and associations will only increase your condemnation. I must repeat to you Paul’s message to the Philippian jailor, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved;” and very likely then it will be possible to add in your case as in his, “and thy house.” God grant that it may be so!
Now suppose we take that fig tree to the top of a hill, like the Mount of Olives, and plant it there; it is a fig tree still, and it brings forth nothing but figs. Ay, and if the Lord were to take an unconverted man up to heaven, just as he is, he would remain unconverted even there. Unless and until he was born again, the mere change of place, even from earth to heaven, would not make him acceptable to God. He would be like that man without the wedding garment; and the King would say to his servants, “Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Perhaps someone asks, “But, sir, what is it to be born again?” Well, it is not a mere outward change of life, it is not simply a giving up of certain sins, and a desire to possess certain virtues. It is as great a work as if you were to be annihilated, — to pass absolutely out of existence-and God were to make a new man in your place. Everyone who is in Christ Jesus is a new creation; old things have passed away, and all things have become new.
“But Can such a change as that be wrought?” asks an anxious enquirer; “it would be a glorious thing for me if it could be wrought in me.” Yes, my friend, it can be done by the almighty Spirit; and if you are ever to be found in the presence of God in glory, this change must be wrought in you. I am speaking to some of you who have been very moral and admirable from your youth up yet you have never experienced a saving change of heart, so to you I must repeat those solemn words of the Lord Jesus, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
“Well,” says some self-satisfied person, “I feel quite good enough already.” Ah! that is the very strongest possible proof that you are not good enough. Do you remember the people, in our Lord’s lifetime on earth, who thought they were good enough, and do you recollect what Jesus said concerning their righteousness? If I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven,” and that is what he says to you who think you are good enough. The man who has been born again confesses with sorrow and shame that he has no goodness of his own, and he ascribes all that is good in, him to the almighty grace of God alone. With Toplady, he sings, —
“Because thy sovereign love
Was bent the worst to save;
Jesus who reigns enthroned above,
The free salvation gave.”
“Ah!” says another friend, “but if that is true, it makes my case so hopeless.” That is just what I want you to feel, so that you may look right away from yourself, and look alone unto Jesus. You cannot regenerate yourself any more than that which is not in existence can create itself. It must be a work that is accomplished by omnipotence, and therefore no power less than that which is divine can accomplish it. So you are obliged to own your absolute dependence upon the grace of God. If he leaves you to yourself, you will be most certainly lost; and he is not bound by anything but the love of his own heart to interpose to rescue you. Therefore if, in his infinite sovereignty, as King of mercy and of grace, he deigns to smile upon you, and to create you anew in Christ Jesus, you will have reason to praise and bless him for ever and ever, will you not? That, is the point to which I want to bring you, so that you will admit that, if you are ever saved, it will be all of God’s grace and all God’s work from first to last.
“Oh, that I had this new birth!” cries one. That very wish, if it be the sincere desire and prayer of your heart may be the first evidence that you have already been born again, even as the Lord’s testimony concerning Saul of Tarsus, “Behold, he prayeth,” proved that he had already uttered the first cry of a newborn child of God. Remember that text, which the Lord blessed to my conversion so many years ago, “Look unto me, and be ye saved all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else,” and do as I did then, look and live. Look this very instant, by faith, to Jesus hanging on the cross of Calvary, for —
“There is life for a look at the Crucified One;
There is life at this moment for thee:
Then look, sinner, — look unto him, and be saved, —
Unto him who was nailed to the tree.”
If thou wilt, do this, that faith-look of thine will be the evidence that this new life is already pulsating within thee; and as this life is everlasting life, thou hast received that life which neither devils nor men can ever take away from thee. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life,” and no man ever truly believed on Jesus, and yet remained unregenerate. Faith in Christ is one of the first signs and tokens of the new life within the soul. If I find on thee even one olive berry, I know that it has the oil of grace within it; and that is proof positive that thou art one of the good olive trees in the garden of the Lord. If I found figs on thee, I should know that thou wast a fig tree; but if I find only one little olive berry, I know that the hidden life that can produce one berry can produce bushels of the same sort, and even larger and richer ones, to the praise and glory of the great Owner of the olive garden in which thou hast been planted by his own right hand. The little feeble faith that thou hast already exercised is the gift of God; and under the gracious nurture of his ever-blessed Spirit, it will grow until than art, like Abraham, “strong in faith, giving glory to God.” May the Lord enable thee to have done with thyself, and to have begun with himself! The end of the creature is the beginning of the Creator. When you own that you cannot save yourself, and trust him to save you, he will do it. Cast yourself upon him this very moment, and then, by an act of almighty grace, the fig tree shall be changed into a fruitful olive tree, and your fruit shall be unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.