A Sermon



(Of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, America,)



"Whosoever shall keep the whole law and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." --James ii.10.


The New Testament is the spirit of the Old revealed. From the state of mankind, and, therefore, from the necessity of the case, God began to deal with men, in his first revelation to them, respecting their outward demeanour, and gradually gave them a more spiritual revelation as they were able to bear it. For example, the New Testament reveals the spiritual meaning of both the moral and ceremonial law, it opens up the full meaning of the types and shadows which were designed, under the old Testament dispensation to teach great truths in relation to religion, but their meaning, and real intention, were lost sight of by a great portion of the Jewish nation, who came to regard them simply in the letter; the New Testament was therefore designed to reveal the deep spirit and meaning of them. When Christ came the veil was put away; we no longer have the letter but the spirit. Jesus Christ and his apostles made it their business to expound the meaning of the Old Testament Scriptures. Christ often expounded the law to show what was the true spirit and meaning of it, resolving it all into two great branches--"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and thy neighbour as thyself." Duties to God and duties to man. Christ thus taught us that the motive, the state of the heart, the intention with which every thing is done constitutes it either sin or holiness. You will find that the New Testament writers, and Christ himself especially, when speaking of the outward conduct of man traces it right back to the heart; and they taught that if any action proceeded from love to God and our neighbour, it was right and good; but if not it was wicked, whatever the outward form of it might be. Now, I say, Christ first and his apostles, and all the inspired teachers of Christianity afterwards made it a prime object of their teaching to show what was the real spirit of the law at all times: they taught that love was the fulfilling of the law; that all law--meaning the law of the Old Testament, was fulfilled in one word--love; and, therefore, whatever action was not from love was sin. It is of very great importance that we should keep our eye on this fact, for we cannot properly understand either the Old or the New Testament, unless we understand the method of God's dealings with men, that he adapted his instructions to their necessities, training them from infancy to manhood, gradually developing his instructions as they were able to receive them. In the Old Testament he gave men all the instruction in a particular form which was necessary for them at the time; and then in the New the veil was taken away from the Old. Those who were pious under the Old Testament dispensation, were justified by faith, and saved even as those under the New, but the best of them knew but comparatively little of spiritual religion. Jesus Christ himself said of John the Baptist, that he was greater than all those who had come before him, but he also said, that the least in the kingdom of God was greater than he. That is to say, the least under the New Testament dispensation was greater than the greatest under the Old.

In speaking from the words that I have read, I propose to pursue the following order:--





I. What is not intended by the assertion in the text. Observe, the affirmation is this--"Whosoever shall keep the whole law and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." Now I remark, first, that he did not intend to say that any man might obey the spirit of one precept and at the same time disobey the spirit of another precept: to interpret it thus would be to make the text speak directly the opposite of what it does say. The text does not say that you can truly keep all the precepts but one, for this is the very thing which the Apostle takes pains to deny; if we understand him to mean that, then we understand him to assert a palpable contradiction. He says, if a man offends in one point he is guilty of breaking the whole law--then of course he meant to deny that a man can keep the law in some particulars and break it in others at the same time..

II. What then is intended? Why he plainly means this--and it is perfect accordance with the spirit of the whole of the New Testament--that if the letter of every precept but one, is obeyed, while the spirit of that one is knowingly violated, the whole law is broken--if in any one particular he knowingly, sin[,] he violates the whole law. I will explain the reason for this by and by--I am now explaining the meaning. I say, then, that the violation of one law is the violation of all law. That is when the spirit of a precept is violated, there can be no real true obedience of any other precept.

III. We have next to inquire whether this doctrine is sanctioned by human intelligence as well as revelation. Observe, this doctrine was but very little understood under the Old Testament dispensation, for reasons that I have already mentioned. They were taken up with the letter of the law, and, therefore, were not disposed to trace back their actions to the heart--and to understand that all outward actions were the result of the state of the heart. Now the New Testament was designed to correct this great and almost universal error.

In showing you that this is the doctrine, and the only doctrine of human reason, such as human beings can acknowledge, I observe first; the letter of the law refers to outward acts; it says thou shalt do so and so, and thou shalt not do so and so; it requires certain things to be done, and certain things to be omitted--this is the letter of the law. In the ten commandments you have an illustration of what I mean. Now observe, the Jews, as a nation, did not consider that these outward actions had no moral character only as they proceeded from certain states of mind--consequently when they had fulfilled the letter of the law they thought that they had kept the law. If they did not commit adultery in the outward act, they thought they had kept the law; if they did not kill, or bear false witness, they thought themselves free from all the condemnation and penalties which were attached to the violation of these commands. But Christ said, if a man should so much as look upon a woman to lust after her, he had already committed adultery with her in his heart; and in the same way he took up every one of the precepts of the moral law, and every precept of religion to be found in the Old Testament, and resolved it all back into the state of the heart in which everything was done. This, to be sure, was a most terrible blow to the hopes of the self-righteous, to those who had a great regard for their own doings, but he saw that this was needed.

Let me say again: the spirit of the law always respects the motive from which an action springs. It is so in all criminal courts in every country. The letter of the law says thou shalt not do this or that, and yet in trying a case of crime the judge and jury always try to get at the motive which prompted the action. Suppose, for example, they found that an individual did anything outwardly, but that he was insane when he did it, they would say that his deed was not a crime. To be sure, courts of law are obliged, in general, to take the outward act as indicative of malicious intention; but if it can be proved that there was no such malicious intention--that the motive was not to do harm, but to do good--the action would not be treated as a crime. Courts of Law and Equity always seek to ascertain the motive from which a thing is done, and if it can be arrived at the doctrine of reason is always supplied to the case--the spirit of the law, therefore, in all cases respects the motive from which any action proceeds.

In the next place; the moral law, or the law of God, requires supreme love to God, and equal love to man. The whole of the law is summed up in these two requirements--love to God and love to man. And this love must not be a mere emotion: the whole being must be devoted to the end to which God is devoted: it must be a voluntary devotion to God because of the end which he seeks. In other words--it is good-will within: it is the mind in a voluntary state yielding itself up, not to self-interest, but the glory of God, and the good of all beings.

Let me say again: it is easy to see that the state of mind which will supremely devote itself to one great end, cannot at the same time give itself up for the promotion of a different end: his mind cannot be devoted to one end and all his outward conduct tend in a directly opposite course; the very fact that he is devoted to an end will regulate his being, and be the mainspring of all his outward actions. If a man's mind is devoted to God, his outward actions will be an illustration of his thoughts: his heart is full of love to God, and he is set upon realizing the end at which God aims; and, therefore, all his outward actions will be a succession of endeavours to realize that end. Selfishness, in all sinners, is the end at which they aim; and their outward life is nothing more than a perpetual succession of efforts to gratify themselves; hence it is easy to see that all their actions will have one great end in view--the promotion of their own interests. This, I say, everybody knows, that knows anything about mind and its actions.

But let me say once more: when there is supreme love to God, and equal love to our fellow-men--that is where we love them as we love ourselves--we cannot consent in any way to wrong God or our neighbours. Suppose now, that a man loves God supremely, is supremely devoted to his interests, it is impossible that he could sin knowingly, and do that which is inconsistent with God's interests. His whole life is an endeavour to secure that upon which his heart is set. Suppose then that his heart is set upon pleasing and glorifying God, can he consent to sin in such a state of mind, and thus dishonour, displease, and set at naught the authority of God? It is a contradiction and an absurdity to say that he can. This is the doctrine of the law as well as the gospel, for the gospel does not in any case set aside the law. So far is it from being true that the gospel has set aside the law, that it is only a condensation of the requirements of the law, and it contains the whole substance and the very essence of the law doubly sanctioned and enforced. Hence it is said, "If he that despised Moses's law died without mercy, of how much sorer punishment shall he be thought worthy who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and counted the blood of the covenant an unholy thing?: Again: if a man loved his neighbour as himself, it is impossible that he should consent to wrong his neighbour, but on the other hand, he will seek his neighbour's interests equally with his own.

Then let me say in the next place; obedience to God implies a supreme regard to God's authority. Now every one can see that every known sin is a rejection of his authority. For example. Suppose an individual does anything whatever from a supreme regard to God's authority, he cannot act in any other thing in a way quite inconsistent with that authority. Suppose he does any one thing from a supreme regard for the authority and interests of God, he cannot, while in that state of mind do something, in the accomplishment of which he must reject the authority of God and trample it down. The thing is preposterous, as every man perceives. A man cannot act without regard to the authority of God in one thing, and yet at the same time act from supreme authority to him in another thing.

But let me say again: it is easy to see that a man cannot pick and choose among the commandments of God, and obey some and disobey others. Supreme love to God is an exercise of the mind, and a man cannot have this and yet act the opposite--it is a palpable contradiction: a man with supreme love to God in his mind cannot consent to violate any commandment of God.

This leads me to remark again; that the true spirit and meaning of what the apostle says, is as obviously and strongly asserted by reason as it is by revelation. What the apostle asserts is this--if a man should do any or all of the things required in the decalogue, or ten commandments, in the letter, and yet should violate the true Spirit of one law, he would prove that he did not keep any of them from a right motive--that he did not really obey the law at all in its true spirit and meaning. If I should keep those which did not cost me much self-denial, or keep them in the letter, but violate them in the spirit, this would prove that none of them were kept from a right motive. Hence, if any one indulges in the commission of any one sin, and yet appears in everything else to be virtuous, you may know that he has no true religion in his heart, that he is only religious in appearance. From what the apostle says in this passage it is plain, that if men pretend to have faith, and pretend to have love, and yet do not obey God, that they are deceiving themselves, and are violating the spirit of the whole of God's law. You can thus see, my dear hearers, that if the heart is right the conduct must be, and if the heart is wrong the conduct is wrong, whatever it may appear outwardly. The conduct is sinful, because it does not proceed from right intention. If the law of God is not obeyed in the spirit of it, it is disobeyed, whatever the outward life may be. If there is no reverence for the authority of God, no supreme devotedness to God, and not equal love for our neighbours, the law is violated. This leads me to say again--if the spirit of the law is violated, the spirit of the gospel is violated--for the spirit of the law is the spirit of the gospel, and the spirit of the gospel is the spirit of the law--and both are the spirit of heaven; both are the spirit of God, and both are found in heaven; therefore, whatsoever falls short of obeying the spirit of the law, also falls short of obedience to the gospel.

Some remarks must close what I have to say this morning. First: viewed in relation to God's government of men there are no little sins. A great many persons have wondered, in reading the Old Testament, why certain sins were punished with death, which in the present day are hardly regarded as sins at all. The penalties for breaking the law under Moses were very different to what they are now in governments generally. The fact is, that under that dispensation it was peculiarly necessary for the infliction of a severe penalty against sin; and there were peculiar reasons why the law of the Sabbath should have been so rigidly enforced upon the Jews. But if you reflect for a moment you will see that there are no little sins, because every sin is a rejection of God's authority: every sin is a renunciation, for the time being, of allegiance to the Divine government. Of course there can be no little sins, for every sin involves a breach of the whole law, in the spirit of it; every one of them involves a refusal to love God with all the heart, and our neighbours as ourselves; every one of them involves a setting up of our own interests above that of Jehovah. There are no little sins then under the government of God; for every one of them involves rebellion against his authority. When we come to look at human society, and judge of the actions of men only as they effect it, we get comparative ideas of sin; but when we come to look at sin as a violation of the law of God, then we can see that every one who commits sin, in any degree as judged by human society, is an open enemy of God.

But let me say once more: when we truly understand this subject we shall see that when God's government is regarded, those sins which people are apt to call little sins, are really the greatest. That is, they involve the most guilt when viewed in their relations to God. When people practice little forms of self-indulgence, little lies, little acts of unjust dealing, of course the temptation is small, and the smaller the temptation if complied with, the greater the sin. Suppose, for example, an individual, through the force of temptation, should commit some horrible crime against society, which is bad enough to be sure; but suppose another man, under very slight temptation consents to cast off God's authority in something else! Now it is true that in the former case the man consented to cast off God's authority too, and the crime consists in sinning against God's authority; the crime does not consist in sinning against human law, and human society. Observe, then, in both instances, the sin is against God. The one is called a crime, but the other is not generally regarded as such, and yet both as crimes against God are equally wicked, or it may be, as I have said, that that which is not regarded as a crime by man, may be the greatest sin against God, because it was committed under very slight temptation. You are passing along the street, and you see a woman with a basket of oranges, her head is turned, you pop your hand into her basket, and slip an orange into your pocket. A very trifling thing, you say, I only took an orange. See that man with a plate of buttons, two for a penny, or it may be more, his back is turned, and a man puts his hand into the plate and slips a pennyworth of buttons into his pocket. Now, what has he done? Why, under a very little temptation he has consented, with the eye of God looking right on him, to cast off God's authority, and trample upon it for the value of a penny! Now he does not love that man whom he robbed, as he loves himself! His conduct says as plain as possible, God has commanded me to love my neighbour as myself, but I will love myself, and not my neighbour--I do not care what God says; I will do as I please. Now sinner, you would be afraid to say that, but you do it. You are too hypocritical and cowardly to say it; but you do it right in the face of Almighty God!!

Once more: the least sins against society are often the greatest against God. Suppose a case. Look at that man, he is under the greatest excitement, some one has seduced his wife in his absence from home; he returned and found it out; in his desperation and agony he meets the man who has so grievously injured him, and he takes his life. He has committed a great crime against society and against God. Now take another case--two men with two dogs pass along the street--the dogs begin to fight--one of the dogs receive some slight injury, and a slight scuffle ensues between their owners; and one injures the other. Now in this latter case there was very little temptation to commit the sin of injuring a neighbour compared with the former, and, therefore, this latter sin was as great as the former, and, perhaps, greater in the sight of God.

Once more: it is easy to see, from what has been said, how it is that multitudes misapprehend their true spiritual condition--I mean men are outwardly conformed to the letter of God's law, but who are not truly Christian men. It is very important to understand this, and come to a thorough understanding that it is not by obedience to the letter of the law that a man can be accepted of God. Take an illustration. We will suppose, if you please, that one of Her Majesty's ships of war turn pirates; they exhibit the black flag, the death's head and cross bones, and go forth to make war upon the ships of all nations. Now they understand very well the importance of discipline, and it is strictly enforced because they are fully aware that they cannot secure their own ends without it. They take a ship, and the booty is distributed fairly to every man in proportion to his rank. Perhaps there is not a better disciplined ship in Her Majesty's navy; nor one in which there is more concern for the feelings and the comfort of the whole crew. Now suppose that this ship should want provision and ammunition, and should seek a supply from the government on the score of their discipline and kindly feeling which exist among themselves? The government would ask whether their object in all they did was to vindicate the honour of their country and promote her interests? Now the reverse of this being true of them, is it not easy to see that they would be rightful[ly] refused their request by British Government? Where is the virtue of all their discipline and kindly feeling if they are employed in opposing the government and the interests of the citizens? Thus the moralist may boast of his morality, but all he does is from a selfish motive and for a selfish end, and this is what constitutes him a sinner. Now suppose that human society in any part of the world should become perfect so far as intercourse between themselves in concerned. Their object is to secure some selfish end. It is indispensable that they should be faithful and kind to each other, as a condition of securing their selfish object. Suppose they should have the utmost discipline among themselves, and even manifest great benevolence. But if all this has relation to their own selfish objects, and not to the glory of God and the good of his kingdom, they are sinners, and only sinners continually. A merely moral man--a man who is not converted, a man who does, not act from love to God--has not a particle of anything good within him. In all his conduct he tramples on the authority of God's law--he acts from a selfish motive, and not from love to God, he has no reference to God in what he does.

Let me say again: I fear that there are great many professors of religion, who suppose that they are truly religious although they knew that there are some forms of sin which they have not given up--things which the law and the gospel both condemn. But they expect Christ to justify them. They think they have some religion, and do not expect to be very pious because they cannot be perfect, and so they indulge in some forms of sin, and are under the influence of certain forms of selfishness, and are thinking all the while, that because they keep such and such other commandments in the letter, that they will be saved at last. Thus they do not keep any of the commandments in the spirit of them, as God requires them to be kept, and if a man obeys not the law in the spirit, he does not obey it at all.

Once more: it is of the greatest importance that men should understand this, for there cannot be a more dangerous idea than that men can serve God and mammon at the same time; that men can pick and choose among God's commandments--break those, and keep these in the letter, and yet be religious! This can never be. Human reason, as well as the Scriptures affirm that this must be true, and that its opposite cannot.

Now I must break off my remarks, but before I sit down let me ask you a question. My dear hearers, are you conscious of indulging in any forms of sin? And if you are, do you still hold on to the hope that you will be saved? Are you indulging in these things that you know to be sins; so that if you were to meet Jesus Christ in the street you would have no occasion to say--is such a thing a sin? You would be ashamed to ask such a question; for in the deep recesses of your heart you know it is sin. For let me say, although some persons try to persuade themselves that such and such things are not sins, yet if they knew they should not live ten minutes, they would conclude and acknowledge at once that they were. Now I do not mean that a Christian may not fall, under the influence of a powerful temptation, into sin, even as bad as David did. David was a good man, but under the influence of a powerful temptation he fell. But I doubt if a man could do what David did, in the present day of gospel light, and yet be a Christian. But if a Christian fall into sin he will not remain in its indulgence: he will be very anxious to have all his sins searched out, and forgiven. A true Christian will act from supreme love to God, and equal love to man. Now suppose a man should say--in some things I keep the true spirit of the law and of the gospel, but there are some forms of sin I have never given up; there are such and such things in which I have always indulged myself; notwithstanding I love God supremely, and supremely regard his authority, in some things I yield my will entirely up to God, but in others, I disobey him. Now what sort of talk would that be? It would be just the religion of a mass of people! They act in this way; but if they were to put it into words it would amount almost to blasphemy!

Another thing I would mention is this--if sinners would only say right out what they practice, what an awful state of society should we call it. If men were to profess the utmost contempt for God's authority we should be shocked. But men by their conduct; some by swearing and taking the name of God in vain, and others by cheating and taking advantage of their neighbours in every little thing, are really saying--I do not mind what God says; I have a great contempt for his law; I do not care whether I grieve him or his Spirit; I will do just what I like. If those who are so would only say it, the people would rise up and cast such blasphemy out of society. Suppose a child should be told to do a certain thing, and he should say, I will not, but go right away and disobey you before your eyes. You command them, but they treat you with contempt. They do not say I will not obey, but smile in your face and go and disobey you--what would you think of them? I will tell you what you would think, that the wickedness of their conduct could not be described in words.

O sinner! sinner! You do just this every day towards God, every one of you! But mind I do not bring this against you as a railing accusation: I have no personal quarrel with you; but I know you would despise me as a dishonest man if I should hesitate to tell you to your face, as God's minister, how you treat him! I have been a sinner myself, and have treated God as you are now treating him; and I know how you feel. When I was an impenitent sinner I never respected a man who did not tell me of my sins--I despised him. Now sinner, how long will you go on in this way rebelling against God and despising his authority? Will you make up your mind that this shall be no longer? When you can reconcile yourself to such treatment from your children, then you may treat God so, but not before. Will you then turn unto God and live? or will you continue to rebel and perish for ever? Which will you do?


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