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JAMES ii. 10.
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
Few persons, I apprehend, have either read or heard these words, without being in some degree shocked at them, and looking upon them as a very hard saying*. For though, from reverence to Scripture, we may endeavour to keep down what rises in our minds, yet no wonder if we feel a strong reluctance to believing, that he, who transgresses in some things, is guilty of others in which he doth not transgress; and so by running into one extreme becomes chargeable with the opposite: which, it must be owned, this passage, upon the first view of it, appears to affirm. But then we ought to remember, that in all discourses, upon all subjects, many things occur, which are by no means to be understood according to the mere sound of the words, but according to the nature of the matter in question, the visible intention of the writer or speaker, and the use of the language. And more especially short sentences and maxims, whether of religion, morals, or prudence, ought to have this allowance made to them: because they are often purposely conceived in terms, the obvious meaning of which alarms men; that so their
John vi. 60.
attention may be excited more effectually to that hidden wisdom, which, on farther inquiry, it will be found they convey. Now the assertion before us is a Jewish maxim, found in several of their ancient books, written since the times of the Apostles, and therefore probably enough used before their time, when a controversy amongst them, of which we have footsteps in the Gospels, might easily furnish an occasion for it.
They had a law, of which the precepts, adding the ceremonial to the moral, were very numerous. The observation of all these, though adapted with great wisdom to the circumstances, in which they were placed for so many ages, was found very burdensome. And therefore some of them had begun to persuade themselves, and teach others, that a strict obedience to which ever part they pleased was sufficient; or, to express it in their own words, that God gave so many commandments to them, that by doing any of them, they might be saved*; by which they meant at least any great one; and hence in all likelihood arose the question, which was the great commandment in the law? A doctrine of so pernicious consequence as this, we may be sure, while there was any regard to truth left, would be strenuously opposed. And it was natural, that the contrary doctrine should be expressed by the teachers of it in the strongest manner
* Pocock on Hos. xiv. 2. from Ikkarim, 1. 3. c. 29. In hunc ordinem recipiunt quemvis antiqui, qui ob unicum tantummodo præstitum preceptum, non rejiciens interim cætera, sed ea approbans, meretur nomen Israelitæ. Men. Ben. Isr. de Resur. 1. 2. c. 8. p. 181. But then he saith, 1. 1. c. 6. p. 43, 44. that the ancients held, they were first to suffer for their bad deeds, then to be rewarded for their good deeds; but still all Israelites were to be finally happy, unless they disbelieved Providence, the law, or the resurrection.
† Matt. xxii. 36.
they could well invent. Now such undoubtedly is that of the text, which may seem indeed to have overdone the matter not a little. But the limitations, belonging to it, were probably well understood by every body then. And therefore all that St. James needed, in writing to the Jewish Christians of those days, was to confirm it by the sanction of his authority; though in our times it is requisite to explain, and guard it against mistakes: which also he hath greatly assisted us in doing.
For, that he never designed in the least to affirm, that being guilty of one sin would make men's condition as bad, as being guilty of ever so many, we may be very sure; not only from the monstrous unreasonableness of such a notion, and its inconsistence with what the other parts of Scripture have expressly taught; but from hence also, that were this the case, all sinners whatever must receive an equal condemnation; and yet he himself, in the very first verse of the very next chapter, speaks of some, that shall receive a greater condemnation. Since therefore this could not be his meaning, let us proceed I. To consider, what it was, or might be. II. To draw suitable inferences from it. I. To consider, what it was, or justly might be. And here, offending in one point must of necessity signify offending wilfully: for through ignorance, inadvertence, or surprise, we all offend in many things, as this very epistle tells us*: yet we cannot think, the text was intended to bring every person under the guilt which it mentions. And therefore we are not to understand it of such offences, but of presumptuous and habitual sins, that whoever breaks the law in one point is guilty of all.
* James iii. 2.
Again, offending in one point, may mean either offending in some one of singular importance, or in any one, great or small. There have been persons, who, taking it in the former sense, have understood the one point to be that of mutual love, which St. James just before*, as well as St. Paul †, says, is the fulfilling of the law. And as the whole law of social life is briefly comprehended in this saying, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, he, who offends in that one, will certainly be guilty of all, since all depend on that §: and however strictly the outward acts of each may be performed, the inward spirit of them cannot be preserved. But if it be thought rather, that offending in any one point whatever was meant by St. James, then we must inquire somewhat farther, to know, what the last words, guilty of all, can signify. They certainly carry an appearance of astonishing severity. And yet there is no necessity of understanding them to be any thing more than a strong expression, (for all the eastern people expressed things very strongly) importing, that whoever is thus blamable, is greatly blamable, and liable to a heavy punishment. There is one passage in St. Matthew particularly, which will show this in a clear light: I mean that, where our Saviour tells the Jews, that on them should come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias the son of Barachias, whom they slew between the temple and the altar. Norvas he content with saying so once, but repeats it immediately, Verily I say unto you, all these things shall
+ Rom. xiii. 10.
1 Ver. 9.
§ Merito fit omnium reus, qui contra illam [charitatem] facit, ex qua pendent omnia. Aug. ad Hieron. See also the Life of St. Erkenwald, in the Appendix to Dugdale's History of St. Paul's, p. 8.
come upon this generation *. What could he possibly mean here? Not literally, that any of the Jews should be punished on account of the murder of Abel; for they did not so much as descend from his murderer: nor that any of that generation should undergo the sentence of God for what another generation did: but, as their wickedness, especially in persecuting him and his disciples, was, and he foresaw would be, incredibly great, he designed to say in the most forcible manner, that their punishment should be so too: and to raise, if possible, their conceptions of it high enough, he purposely uses terms, which, if taken strictly, would be too high; and speaks, as if every innocent man, that had ever been put to death, should have his blood required at their hands. Nor did he alone venture on such forms of speech. St. John hath exactly the same, where he saith, that in Babylon was found the blood of all that were slain upon the earth. This may seem to us taking a strange liberty: but it was familiar to the Jews: their own writers since are full of it; and abound in sayings, which they intend only for bold figures, and the ignorant mistake for gross absurdities. Indeed all languages have more or less in them of this kind: only we overlook it in our own, while we are shocked at it in others. To say, that a man hath done all the mischief, or suffered all the misery, in the world, is so common a way of speaking, that perhaps we shall be surprised, upon recollection, to find it quite as strong, as the beforementioned ones out of Scripture. Just in the same manner, then, as the Jews of that one age were to bear the punishment of all the righteous blood, that had been shed in all ages; the wilful breakers of one + Rev. xviii. 24.
* Matt. xxiii. 35, 36.