Cantate, 5th Sunday of Easter, BWV 166: Wo gehest du hin?, Sunday Cantata, 28. Apr 2013
Sunday Cantata | Lutheran Radio UK:
Sermons of Dr. Martin Luther for Cantate
(Note from the Lenker edition: The following two sermons are not found in edition c. They first appeared in three pamphlet editions in 1523 under the title: “A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Easter, John 16, Martin Luther, Wittenberg, 1523.” It appeared in the collection of 13 sermons. German text: Erlangen Edition 12:95; Walch Edition 2:1165; St. Louis Walch 11:865.)
Text: John 16:5-15
But now I go unto him that sent me; and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou? But because I have spoken these things unto you, sorrow hath filled your heart.
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I go, I will send him unto you. And he, when he is come, will convict the world in respect of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they believe not on me; of righteousness, because I go to the Father, and ye behold me no more; of judgment, because the prince of this world hath been judged. I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, shall come, he shall guide you into all the truth; for he shall not speak from himself; but what things soever he shall hear, these shall he speak; and he shall declare unto you the things that are to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall take of mine, and shall declare it unto you. All things whatsoever the Father hath are mine; therefore said I, that he taketh of mine, and shall declare it unto you.
1. The meaning of this Gospel lesson we have also often heard elsewhere; the only trouble is, the words have not generally been understood to have the meaning of things with which we are familiar. Therefore we will explain it a little, in order that one may see that the same teaching is contained in these words, that is found in all the other Gospel lessons. It is a fine Gospel, but it also requires fine students. We will omit the first part and consider what the Lord says, that the Holy Spirit is to convict the world in respect of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment, and will see what the meaning of all this is.
2. In the first place, we see here that the world is accused of blindness and ignorance. All those who are without the Holy Spirit, however wise they may be in matters pertaining to the things of this world, are, before God, fools and blind. They do not like to hear this; and when they are told that their doings are of no account before God, it displeases them and makes them angry, because they insist that they are in possession of reason and the natural light, which God created in them. But what does this matter to us? There are the Scriptures and the Word of God plain and clear, that the Holy Spirit is to come to ‘convict the world, because it does not know what sin, righteousness and judgment are. Thus it is determined, there it stands; let be angry who will, Christ does not care.
3. It is much to be deplored that the world is convicted, not only because of its sin and want of righteousness, not being able to judge rightly, but that it does not acknowledge nor see this, to say nothing of its endeavor to alter the matter. Oh, how completely the praise of all comes to naught, who, while they endeavor to make other people pious, know not themselves what sin is! Let us take, for example, at the present day, all the schools of learning and the learned men and see whether they can tell us what that one little word “sin” is? For who has ever heard that not to believe in Christ is sin? They say, it is sin if one speaks, desires or does something against God’s will and commandment. But how does that correspond with this saying of Christ: It is sin because they do not believe on me? Therefore, they are easily convicted of the fact that they know not what sin is; and if they be ever so learned, they will not be able to explain this text.
4. In like manner, they are not able to know what “righteousness” is. For who has ever heard that a man should become pious and just because Christ ascended to heaven or goes to the Father and we see him no more?There we must say, a fool has thus spoken and not a wise man. For they say, righteousness is a virtue, which teaches man what he owes others. This is true, but the trouble is, they do not understand their own words, such blind fools they are. Therefore, one needs not be surprised that they rage so much against the Gospel and persecute the Christians. How could they do otherwise? They know no better.
5. Neither do they know what “judgment” or right is, that is, a right judgment, a correct good opinion and sense, or whatever you may call it. For they say: Right is that which is written in books, how one is to know and distinguish things, to quiet and end quarrels. But how does Christ define it? He says: “It is right, that the world is to be judged.” Who understands such speech, and where will it go in or out, and how does it correspond with reason? Let us see whether we can explain it so that it may be understood.
6. In the first place one must know that the Word of God does not speak only of the outward existence and appearances, but it takes hold of the heart and the depths of the soul. Accordingly it does not judge man as to his outward appearance and action, but according to the depths of his conscience. Now, everyone will experience in himself, if he wishes to acknowledge it, however pious he may be (even though he were a Carthusian or as holy as any one on earth), that in his heart he would rather do the contrary, and otherwise than what he is outwardly compelled to do. Thus, if I were left to myself, a monk, who walks about in poverty and chastity, as they pride themselves, but were made to confess how I feel in my heart, I must say: That which I do, I would rather not do. If there were no hell and I would not feel the disgrace, I would leave my office have the misfortune, and run off. For I have no desire from the heart to do it, but am compelled thereto, and must do it in spite of hell, punishment or disgrace. It is not possible that I should do it from choice and gladly. Such everyone who is without grace finds in his own heart. The same you will find continually in other matters. I am never from my heart kind and friendly to my enemy, for this is impossible to nature; and though I act otherwise, in my heart I think thus: If it were not for the punishment, I would have my way and not remain without revenge. Thus, I still go about before the world, and do not as I would like and feel inclined to do, for fear of punishment or disgrace. Likewise if you go through all the commandments, from the first to the last, you will find that there is no one who keeps God’s commandments from the bottom of his heart.
7. Now, against this evil God found a remedy and determined to send Christ, his Son, into this world, that he should shed his blood and die, in order to make satisfaction for sin and take it away, and that the Holy Spirit then should enter the hearts of such people, who go about with the works of the Law, being unwilling and forced to it, and make them willing, in order that without force and with joyous heart they keep God’s commandments. Otherwise there might be no means of removing the misery; for neither human reason and power, nor even an angel could rescue us from it. Thus, God has done away with the sins of all men who believe on the Christ, so that henceforth it is impossible for one to remain in sin who has this Savior, who has taken all sins upon himself and blotted them out.
8. Inasmuch as Christ has now come and commanded to preach that everything we may do, however great and beautiful it may appear, is sin, because we do nothing that is good with pleasure and willingly, and that for this reason he has stepped forward and has taken away all sin, in order that we may receive the Holy Spirit, through whom we obtain love and pleasure to do what God wants us to do, in order that we do not attempt to come before God through our own works, but through Christ and his merits, therefore it cannot be called any longer sin committed against the Law, for the Law did nothing to assist us in becoming pious, since we are not able to do anything good.
9. What sort of sin then remains upon earth? No other than that one does not receive this Savior and refuses to accept him who has taken away sin. For if he were present, there would be no sin, since he, as I have said, brings the Holy Spirit with him, who kindles the heart and makes it willing to do good. Therefore, the world is no longer punished and condemned on account of other sins, because Christ blots them all out; only this remains sin in the New Testament, that one will not acknowledge nor receive him. Therefore he likewise says in this Gospel: “When the Holy Spirit is come, he will convict the world in respect of sin, because they believe not on me.”
10. As if he wished to say: Had they believed on me, everything would already have been forgiven them, whatever sin they might have committed, for I know that they by nature cannot do otherwise. But because they will not receive me, neither believe that I can help them, this it is that will condemn them. Therefore, God will at the final judgment pass a sentence like this on them: Behold, thou wast in sin and couldst not free thyself from it, still I did not on this account wish to condemn thee, for I sent my only begotten Son to thee and intended to give thee a Savior, in order that he might take the sin from thee. Him thou didst not receive. Therefore, on this account alone, thou wilt be condemned, because thou hast not Christ.
11. This sentence, then, is given for the honor and glory of the high grace, which God has given us in Christ the Lord. What reason would have ever been so wise as to discover that this was done for man’s sake? Reason is not able to rise higher in its thoughts than to say: I have sinned in deeds done. I must make good by doing other deeds. I must blot out and pay for the sin, in order that I may thus obtain a gracious God. If reason comes so far, it has reached its climax. Still it is nothing but foolishness and blindness.
12. But God speaks thus: If thou wilt be rid of sin, thou must do other works wherewith to pay the price. But with all the works which thou dost, thou canst do nothing but sin, even with the works wherewith thou thinkest to reconcile me and to do penance for thy sins. How wilt thou then, thou fool, blot out sin with sin? For even in the works which thou considerest the best and which thou canst do, thou sinnest if thou dost not do them willingly and from the heart. For if thou didst not fear punishment, thou wouldst rather not do them at all. Thus thou dost no more than that thou seekest to blot out little sins by doing greater ones; or else to commit such great ones that thou mayest lay aside others.
13. Wherefore, it is ever great blindness that a man does not see what sin is, nor know what good works are, but accepts sin for good works. When the Holy Spirit comes, he convicts the people and says: The works which thou hast done, as well as those which thou art still doing, are nothing but sin; therefore, it is all in vain that thou dost attempt to make satisfaction for thy sin according to thy ability. Then they feel compelled to say: Behold, this I did not know. Then says he: For this purpose I am here, in order to tell thee this. If thou hadst known it, it would not have been necessary for me to come and make it known. What wilt thou do now in order to be helped? This thou must do: Believe on the Savior, the Lord Christ, that he has taken away thy sin. If thou believest this, he is thine and thy sins will disappear; if not, then thou wilt never get rid of sin, but wilt always fall into it deeper and deeper.
14. Thus, with this passage everything has been completely overthrown that has hitherto been preached about penance and satisfaction for sin, and all else that has been practiced and urged. For this reason there have been founded many orders and masses, and on this account we have become priests and monks and have run to and fro in order best in the world, which the world considers pious and holy, to get rid of sin. Therefore, it also follows: Whatever is that is nothing but mere sin and a damnable thing. Thus we have considered one part of this Gospel.
15. The second thought then follows: “The Holy Spirit will convict the world in respect to righteousness, because I go to the Father,” says Christ, “and ye behold me no more.” Righteousness means piety and a good and honorable life before God. What is this now? It is, says Christ, “because I go to the Father.” We have often said about the resurrection of Christ that it came to pass not for his sake, but for our sakes, in order that we may apply it to ourselves as a blessing which is our own. For this reason he is risen from the dead and has ascended to heaven, that he might begin a spiritual kingdom, in which he reigns in us through righteousness and truth. Therefore, he sits above; he does not rest and sleep, does not play with himself, but, as Paul says, Ephesians 1:22, has his work here upon the earth, governing the consciences and the souls of men with the Gospel.
16. Wherever Christ is now preached and acknowledged, there he reigns in us, from the right hand of his Father, and is himself here below in the hearts of men. There he reigns with might, power and dominion over you and all your enemies, and guards you from sin, death, devil and hell. Thus is his resurrection and ascension our comfort, life, blessing, righteousness and everything in one. This is what the Lord means when he speaks of righteousness, that the people thereby should become pious and righteous, that he ascends to heaven to the Father and we see him no more. This the world does not know, therefore the Holy Spirit must come and convict the world of it.
17. How does this come to pass? Just as we have heard. Am I to become pious, it will not be enough for me to perform outwardly good works, but I must do them from the bottom of my heart, gladly and willingly, so that I may be free from the fear of sin, death and the devil; be joyous, and with a good conscience, and all confidence stand before him and know how I stand with him. This no work, no creature can give unto me, but Christ alone, who has ascended into heaven— there, where one cannot see him, but must believe that he sits yonder and wishes to help one. Such a faith makes me acceptable unto God; Christ gives me the Holy Spirit into my heart, who makes me willing and happy in the doing of every good work. In this manner I become righteous, and in no other; for the works themselves make me more and more unwilling, the longer I occupy myself with them.
18. But the longer one is engaged in this work, the more willing it makes one’s heart; for wherever there is such knowledge, there the Holy Spirit cannot be wanting. When he comes, he makes the heart willing, joyful and happy, so that one may be free and willingly do what is pleasing to God, with joyous courage, and suffer whatever there is to suffer, yea, and even die willingly. And in proportion as this knowledge is clear and great, in that proportion the willingness and joy will also be great. Thus the commandment of God is fulfilled and everything done that one is to do, and thus thou art righteous. Who would ever have thought that this would be righteousness and that thus it should be. This question we have hitherto often heard about and considered, and although the words here be different, yet the sense and meaning are the same.
19. In the third place, the Holy Spirit is to convict the world in respect of judgment , that is that the world does not know what right is. For who has ever heard the definition of this right to be, because the prince of this world hath been judged? The prince of the world, to be sure is the devil, which one may readily see in his government.
20. If now I have learned to know what sin is and am free from it, and have obtained righteousness, so that now I stand in a new character and life and have become another man — have now the Lord Christ and know that something else than our works is required to get rid of sin — if these have come to pass in me, it then follows that I may have a correct judgment, having learned to judge differently before God. For, according to such understanding, I know how to discuss, conclude and judge of all things in heaven and upon earth, and to pass correct judgment; and when I have passed such a judgment, I can live accordingly. This no one else can do.
21. The world, in its holiness, maintains that righteousness means to perform good works wherewith to do penance for sin and reconcile God. This has been taught in all the schools of learning. Such teachers think it is right and well done if only they can accomplish good works. But now comes the Holy Spirit and says: Not so. You err and are mistaken. Your judgment is wrong. Therefore there must be another judgment. You should judge thus: Everything that your reason concludes, is erroneous and false, and you are a fool and a simpleton.
22. Reason may do other things; for instance, know how to judge in worldly and human matters and affairs, how to build cities and houses, how to govern well, and the like. In such matters one may easily be able to judge and decide more wisely than another. Of this, however, we do not speak here, but of judgment in the significance of what is right or wrong before God. Here the Holy Spirit concludes thus: Every judgment of reason is false and worth nothing. Everything that is born of man and is not born from above, must be rooted out and crucified, so that no one may boast of it and depend upon it. Again, whatever the world considers as wisdom, that which it votes as wisely and intelligently devised and accomplished, is foolishness before God. In short, whatever the world does, is useless and cursed, unless it proceeds from Christ, the Lord, and is of his Word and Spirit, as he teaches us. If it does not proceed from him, it is surely mere blindness and there is no good in it.
23. Therefore everything that the world considers good is debased. Everything is evil because it does not proceed from the Word and the Spirit, but from the old Adam, who is nothing more than a blind fool and sinner. And why? Should not your wisdom and reason be foolishness and count for nothing, since the most exalted one, who has all the power and wisdom of this world in the highest degree, is condemned? For, without doubt, there is no one in the world so wise, shrewd and rational as the devil, and no one is able to make a more pious appearance. And all wisdom and holiness that do not proceed from God, as well as the most beautiful things in the world, are found in their highest degree in the devil. Since he is a prince and the ruler of the world, the wisdom and righteousness of the world must proceed from him; here he reigns with all his power. Therefore, Christ says: Since the same prince of the world is condemned, with all that he has and can do, the world is ever blind because it considers that to be good which has been condemned already, namely his wisdom and piety.
24. We must, therefore, pass a correct judgment, such as Christ passes, if we are to guard against everything that the world considers and declares precious in order that it may appear before God prudent, wise and pious. If people who have not the Word and Spirit of Christ, desire to teach and govern, everything is already condemned; for in this way one accomplishes no more than to make the old Adam stronger and to establish him in his opinion that his works, his piety and prudence are to avail before God. Thereby one must work himself deeper and deeper into the devil’s kingdom.
25. But now, since the prince of this world and the Holy Spirit, the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the devil, are directly opposed to one another, and the Holy Spirit is not willing that anyone should parade his own deeds and praise himself on account of them, the holy cross must soon follow. The world will not consent to be reprimanded for its blindness. Therefore one must willingly submit and suffer persecution. If we have the right kind of faith in our hearts, we must also open our mouths and confess righteousness and make known sin. Likewise we must condemn and punish the doings of this world and make it known that everything it undertakes, is damned. For this we must be considered heretics, and must pass through the fire. They say: This is against the holy councils and the canon of the holy father, the pope. Then you are to answer: How can I help it? Here it stands — the text does not say the Holy Spirit is to convict them and say their doctrine is error, blindness and the government of the devil. This, of course, they will not endure, but would have us call them gracious noblemen. Therefore, one must here risk his neck.
26. These are the three parts we have in this Gospel lesson: Sin is unbelief; righteousness is faith; the judgment is the holy cross. Therefore give heed and learn to consider everything that is without the Spirit as nothing and as condemned, and afterwards be prepared for the holy cross that thou must suffer on account of it. Now follows in the Gospel further: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall guide you into all the truth.”
27. These words ought to be understood in all their simplicity, as if the Lord were to say: “These three parts which I have now related, you cannot yet fully understand, even though I were to explain them unto you. I would have to say much about them in order to explain them more fully, to make plain how things shall be, and you still stick too deep in your coarse, carnal reason to be able to comprehend it. Therefore, I will forbear now. When the Holy Spirit comes, he will enlighten your hearts, so that you will understand it, and will call to your remembrance all things, I tell you of it now, in order that you may think about it. Thus, we give these words in their simple meaning. It is as if I conversed with some one and said: I would yet have many things to say, but they are too difficult for you. You cannot yet comprehend and grasp them.
28. But our doctors and highly learned men have made use of these words in a frivolous way and said that it was necessary to have something more than the Gospel and the Scriptures; therefore one ought also to hear what the councils and the popes decree. They endeavor to prove in this way that Christ says here: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but you cannot bear them now;” therefore, because he has not told them all things, it must follow that he told them to the councils, popes and bishops, who are now to teach them.
29. Now look at these fools, what they say. Christ says: “I have yet many things to say unto you.” What does “you” mean? To whom does he speak? Without doubt, to the apostles. To these he says: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but you cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall guide you into all truth.” Therefore, if Christ is not to lie, his Word must have been fulfilled at the time that the Holy Spirit came. The Holy Spirit must have said everything to them and accomplished everything that the Lord here refers to, and, of course, he led them into all the truth. How, then, do we get the idea that Christ should not have said everything, but should have kept much back, which the councils were to teach and to determine? With this idea his words do not at all harmonize. Christ gives to understand that soon the Holy Spirit would tell and explain to them all things, and that afterwards the apostles should carry out everything, and through them should be made known to the world what they have learned from the Holy Spirit. But, according to the councils and popes,’ it depends on what they say, teach and command, even to the end of the world.
30. Moreover, Christ says further: “He shall guide you into all the truth.” Here we conclude: If what the councils teach be the truth, that one is to wear the tonsure and the cap and live a life of celibacy, then the apostles never came to the truth, since none of them ever entered a cloister, nor kept any of those foolish laws. Thus, Christ must indeed have betrayed us in this, that he said the Holy Spirit should guide us into all the truth, when in reality he wished to teach how we were to become priests ‘and monks and not to eat meat on certain days, and like foolish things.
31. Without doubt it is “truth” before God when one lives an upright and sincere life. But if we now look at our ecclesiasts, pope, bishops, priests and monks, we see nothing but carnival masks, who give themselves the outward appearance of being pious, but in their hearts they are villains. What popes, bishops, and orders have ever led us into this truth, which should spring from within — out of the heart? In everything they are concerned about the outward appearance of things, in order that they may make a display before the eyes of the people.
32. Thus they have perverted this text masterfully in order to strengthen their lies; and yet we are to call them gracious lords! To hear such things is exasperating and it should grieve our hearts that we are to suffer such great outrage — should see how shamefully the people act against the precious Word of God and that they make the Holy Spirit a liar. Should not this single passage be powerful enough against the pope and the councils, even if we had no other in the Scriptures?
33. Thirdly, Christ says: “You cannot bear them now.” Here we ask: My dear, should it have been too hard for the apostles to understand or to obey such laws as abstaining from meat, and the like? They had been accustomed in the law of Moses to observe many such outward ceremonies, and had been educated therein all their life, so that it would have been child’s play for them. Moreover, they understood this better than we do. Is it such a difficult matter — that a monk must wear a black or gray cap, the pope three crowns, a bishop a pointed hat, or the manner of dedicating churches and altars and baptizing bells — are these so difficult as to make it necessary that the Holy Spirit should come from heaven to teach such things? If it is not acting the fool enough that one jests with these noble words, then I do not know how one may be a worse fool.
34. Therefore, beware of these liars and understand the words rightly, thus: Christ wishes to speak of the inward, actual character, not of outward jugglery. He wishes to make the heart, before the eyes of God, pious and righteous in order that it, in the first place, acknowledge its sin, and in the second place, that it acknowledge him to be the one who forgives sin and suffers himself to be sacrificed upon the cross. This is that “truth” which the apostles were not yet able to hear and understand. But those outward things make no one righteous, lead no one to the truth. They make only hypocrites and a show, by which the people are deceived.
35. Thus, we have the true meaning of this passage, from which we see how fools who seek from it to bolster up their jugglery, place themselves in opposition to it and build upon the sand. There is scarcely a passage that is more strongly opposed to them than this one. We have briefly explained this Gospel lesson in order that we may see how it teaches just that which we have always preached.
Text: James 1:16-21
Be not deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, neither shadow that is cast by turning. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. Ye know this, my beloved brethren. But let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore putting away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
1. This lesson was addressed to all Christians. Particularly was it meant for the time when they had to endure from the unbelieving world persecutions severe and oft; as James indicates at the outset, where he says (verses 2-4): “Count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into manifold temptations; knowing that the proving of your faith worketh patience. And let patience have its perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire.” Again (verse 12): “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation.”
2. Two things there are which part men from the Gospel: one is angry impatience, and the other evil lust. Of these James speaks in this epistle. The former sin, he says, arises under persecution — when for the sake of Christ the Lord you must give up property and honor, and risk body and life; must be regarded as fools, as the drudges, yes, the footstool, of the world. Painful and intolerable to the point of discouragement and weariness is such a lot, particularly when it is apparent that your persecutors enjoy good fortune, having honor, power and wealth, while you suffer constantly. Peter, too, admonishes (1 Peter 3:10), upon authority of Psalm 34:12-14: He who would be a Christian must be prepared to avoid evil and do good, to seek peace, to refrain his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking guile, and must commit himself to God. In the case of a great many people otherwise favorably disposed toward the Gospel, it is nothing but persecution which deters and repels them from it. They cannot endure the injuries and reproaches they must suffer for its sake. But for the precious holy cross which is laid upon Christians, and their inability to overcome indignation and impatience, the world would long ago have been crowded with Christians. But on account of trials men recoil, saying: “Rather than endure these, I will remain with the majority; as it is with them, so be it with me.”
3. The second thing to which James refers is worldly lust— “filthiness,” as James terms it. This, too, is a prevailing evil, particularly with the common people. When they once hear the Gospel they are prone to think right away that they know all about it. They cease to heed it and drown in lust, pride and covetousness of the world, being concerned entirely with accumulating wealth and seeking pleasure.
4. That these two evils prevail is apparent to the eyes of all men today. We fear that we shall fare no better than the prophets and the apostles; these things are likely to continue. Nevertheless, we must unceasingly exert ourselves in behalf of ourselves and others to guard diligently against both these evils. Particularly must we not impatiently murmur and rage against God; we must also show meekness toward our fellowmen, to the end that wrath everywhere may be quelled and subdued, and only patience and meekness reign among Christians.
5. As I said before, such seems to be the trend of the whole text. The apostle gives a reason why we should be patient to the extent of not allowing ourselves to be vexed with them who injure us, especially ungrateful rejecters of the Word of God or persecutors of Christians. The reason he assigns is the debt of gratitude we owe: we are to remember the great good we receive from God in heaven — “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”
6. If you carefully balance our gifts and trials against each other and weigh them carefully, you will find the blessings conferred upon you so numerous and rich as far to outweigh the injuries and reproaches you must incur. Therefore, if you are assailed by the world, and are provoked to impatience by ingratitude, contempt and persecution, compare with your trials the blessings and consolations you have in Christ and his Gospel. You will soon find you have more reason to pity your enemies than you have to murmur and to rage against them.
7. Again, concerning them who live in worldly lusts— in “filthiness,” as the apostle terms it: let not their conduct induce you to forsake the Gospel to be like them; for their portion is altogether paltry in comparison with your glorious blessings and divine riches. Take thought, then, and do not allow yourselves to be misled either by the wanton wickedness of the world, through the injury and pain it may inflict, or by the prosperity of the world’s wealthy, who live riotously in all manner of voluptuousness. Look upon what you have from the Father in comparison— his divine blessings, his perfect gifts.
8. For the sake of distinction, we shall designate by “good gifts” the blessings we enjoy here in this life: by “perfect gifts” those awaiting us in the life to come. James implies this distinction when he says: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures.” In the terms “good gifts” and “perfect gifts,” the apostle comprehends all our blessings, those we have already received in the present life and those to be ours in the life to come.
9. I will not now speak particularly of earthly, transient and changeable blessings, such as temporal goods, honor, a healthy body and others, but could we only compare our blessings with these and weigh our treasures and surpassing blessings, we should presently conclude that ours transcend in value a hundred thousand times anything the world possesses and boasts. Many individuals there are who would give thousands of dollars to have the sight of both eyes. So much do they prize the blessing of sight, they would willingly suffer a year’s illness or endure other great inconveniences to obtain it. Less sensible would they be to such discomforts than to the deprivation of the thing they desire. Of physical blessings particularly, we shall not now speak, however, save to mention that they are never equaled by physical ills. Who can purchase or merit, even by enduring tenfold his present physical ills, the very least of God’s gifts; as, for instance, the beholding of the light of the beautiful sun for a single day? And so long as mortal life itself remains, you have the greatest of blessings, one outweighing far all gold and silver and all the misfortunes you may endure. But we shall speak now particularly of the blessings we have in Christ’s resurrection, a subject appropriate to this Paschal season. The text says, Every good gift and every perfect gift cometh down from the Father of lights. For God has begun the work of edifying us, of building us up, and will constitute us his own children, his heirs. This work, James says, is wrought through the Gospel, or “the word of truth,” as he terms it.
10. But what does the resurrection advantage us? It has already brought us this gain: our hearts are enlightened and filled with joy, and we have passed from the darkness of sin, error and fear into the clear light; the Christian is able to judge all sects, all doctrines of devils, that may arise on earth. Is it not a thing of unspeakable value, a precious gift, to be enlightened and taught of God to the extent of being able to judge correctly every doctrine and every kind of conduct exhibited in this world, and to show all men how to live — what to do and what to avoid? “Well may we boast, then, of having here on earth also a Father — “the Father of lights” — from whom we receive blessings of such magnitude that man should willingly yield body and life for their attainment. What would I in my darkness not have given to be liberated from the very dread which prompted the celebration of masses and other abominations, yes, from the torture and anguish of conscience which left me no rest? or to have instruction enabling me rightly to interpret a single psalm? I would, for such enlightenment, readily have crawled on the ground to the ends of the earth. Thank God, we now have the blessed treasure abundantly, the great and precious light, the gracious Word. What is the sum of all suffering and misfortune compared to this light?
11. Secondly, through Christ’s resurrection we have a good, joyous conscience, one able to withstand every form of sin and temptation and to maintain a sure hope of eternal life. The great, glorious gifts and blessings of the resurrection are these: the Gospel, Holy Baptism, the power of the Holy Spirit, and comfort in all adversity. What is a slight injury or the loss of some temporal blessing in comparison with these? What reason has any man to murmur and to rage when such divine blessings are his, even here in this life, blessings which none can take away or abridge? If, then, you are called to renounce money, possessions, honor and men’s favor, remember you have a treasure more precious than all the honors and all the possessions of the world. Again, when you see one living in great splendor, in pleasure and presumption, following his own inclinations, think thus: “What has he? A wretched portion, a beggarly morsel In contrast, I have divine grace enabling me to know God’s will and the work he would have me do, and all in heaven and on earth is mine.” Look, says James, upon the treasure already obtained from the Father of lights — his great and glorious gifts.
12. But these do not represent the consummation of resurrection blessings. We must yet await the real, the perfect, gifts. Our earthly condition does not admit of perfection; hence we cannot truly perceive, cannot comprehend, our treasure. We are but “a kind of first-fruits of his creatures.” God has only commenced to work in us, but he will not leave us in that state. If we continue in faith, not allowing ourselves to be turned away through wrath and impatience, God will bring us to the real, eternal blessings, called “perfect gifts,” the possession of which excludes error, stumbling, anger, and any sin whatever.
13. That future existence, James goes on to say, will be one wherein is “no variation, neither shadow that is cast by turning” — no alternating of light and darkness. In other words, there will not be the variation and instability characteristic of this world, even of the Christian life — today joyous, tomorrow sad; now standing but soon tottering. It is in the Christian life just as in the physical world: we find variableness and continual change — light, is succeeded by darkness, day by night, cold by heat; here are mountains, there valleys; today we are well, tomorrow ill; and so it goes. But all this change shall be abolished. The present life shall be succeeded by one wherein is no variation, but a permanence and eternity of blessing. We shall unceasingly behold God in his majesty where dwells no darkness, no death, plague nor infirmity, but pure light, joy and happiness. Look to this future life! call it to mind, when assailed by the world and enticed to anger or evil lust. Remember the great blessings of heaven assuredly promised you, and whereof Christ your Head has already taken possession, that he may make sure your entrance into the same blessings. These should be to you far more precious and desirable than the things of earth, which all men must leave behind.
14. To these things the Christian should direct his thoughts and efforts, that he may learn to prize his blessings, to recognize his treasures as great and glorious, and to thank God for the beginnings of his grace and blessing bestowed here below. Let us ever look and turn toward true knowledge and understanding, toward righteousness and life; so shall we attain that perfection wherein we are freed from the present imperfect, unstable existence, the yoke we now bear upon our necks and which continually weighs upon us and renders us liable to fall from the Gospel. Impulse and aid for such pursuit we are to receive from the holy cross and persecution, as well as from the example of the world. With what ease the poor, wretched people are wrested from the Word and from faith, wherein they might enjoy unspeakable grace and blessings, by the sordid, beggarly pleasures to be sought for here!
15. Therefore, James says: “Why trouble yourselves about earthly blessings, which though God-given are transitory? Why not much rather rejoice in the comforting prospect of the great heavenly blessings already abundantly yours and which cannot be taken from you?” And by way of explanation he says further: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth.”
15. The first, and in fact the best, thing Christ has sent us from on high is sonship. He brought us forth, made us his children, or heirs. We are truly called children born of God. But how are we born? Through “the Word of truth,” or the true Word. By this statement James makes a wide thrust at all factions and sects. For they also have a word and boast much of their doctrine, but theirs is not the Word of truth whereby men are made children of God. They teach naught, and know naught, about how we are to be born God’s children through faith. They prate much about the works done by us in the state derived from Adam. But we have a Word whereby, as we are assured, God makes us his beloved children and justifies us — if we believe in that Word. He justifies us not through works or laws. The Christian must derive his sonship from his birth. All whittling and patching is to no purpose. The disciples of Moses, and all work-mongers, would effect it by commandments, extorting a work here and a work there, effecting nothing. New beings are needed, children of God by birth, as John 1:12 says.
17. The children of God, John tells us, are they who believe on the name of Christ; that is, who sincerely cling to the Word. John extols the Word as the great, the mighty, gift. They are children who cleave to the message that through Christ God forgives their sins and receives them into his favor; who adhere to this promise in all temptations, afflictions and troubles. The Word here on earth is the jewel which secures sonship. Now, since God has so greatly blessed you as to make you his own begotten children, shall he not also give you every other good?
18. Whence, then, do you derive sonship? Not from your own will, not from your own powers or efforts. Were it so, I and other monks surely should have obtained it, independently of the Word; it would have been ours through the numerous works we performed in our monastic life. It is secured, James says, “of his will.” For it never entered into the thought of any man that so should we be made children of God. The idea did not grow in our gardens; it did not spring up in our wells. But it came down from above, “from the Father of lights,” by Word and Spirit revealed to us and given into our hearts through the agency of his apostles and their successors, by whom the Word has been transmitted to us. Hence we did not secure it through our efforts or merits. Of his Fatherly will and good pleasure was it conferred upon us; of pure grace and mercy he give it.
19. James says, “That we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures”; that is, the newly-begun creature, or work, of God. By this phrase the apostle distinguishes the creatures of God from the creatures of the world, or creatures of men. Likewise does Peter when he says (1 Peter 2:13), “Be subject to every ordinance [or creature] of man”; that is, to everything commanded, ordained, instituted, made, by men. For instance, a prince constitutes men tax-gatherers, squires, secretaries, or anything he desires, within the limits of his power. But new creatures are found with God. They are styled “creatures of God” because he has created them as his own work, independently of human effort or human power. And so the Christian is called a “new creature of God,” a creature God himself has made, aside from all other creatures and higher than they. At the same time, such creation of God is only in its initial stage. He still daily operates upon it until it becomes perfect, a wholly divine creature, as the very sun in clearness and purity, without sin and imperfection, all aglow with love divine.
20. Take into careful consideration these facts. Keep before you the great blessing, honor and glory God has conferred upon you in making you heirs of the life to come, the life wherein shall be no imperfection nor variation, the life which shall be an existence in divine purity and protection like God’s own. Do not, then, by any means allow yourselves to be provoked to anger by the wretched, sordid, beggar’s wallet which the world craves. Rather, much rather, rejoice in the divine blessings, and thank God for having made you worthy of them. Whether sweet or bitter — in comparison with these let everything else be spurned. “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us-ward” — to us the children of God — says Paul in Romans 8:18.
21. So James draws the conclusion: “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” In other words, in receiving counsel or comfort be swift; but do not permit yourselves readily to criticize, curse, or upbraid God or men. James does not mean to prohibit reproof, censure, indignation and correction where the command of God or necessity requires; but he forbids rashness or hastiness on our part, despite our provocation in the premises. When we are provoked we should first hear what the Word of God says and be advised thereby. It is the right and true counsel, and we should ever permit ourselves to be led by it; according to its teaching should all our decisions, reproofs and censures be regulated. In immediate connection, James bids us receive the Word with meekness, we are not to be incensed when censured by its authority, or to become impatient and murmur when we have to suffer something because of it. The reason James assigns for restraining our anger is: “For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” This is a truth admitted even by the heathen — “Ira furor brevis est,” etc. — and verified by experience. Therefore, upon authority of Psalm 4:4, when you feel your wrath rising, sin not, but go to your chamber and commune with yourself. Let not wrath take you by surprise and cause you to yield to it. When slander and reproach is heaped upon you, or curses given, do not rashly allow yourself to be immediately inflamed with anger. Rather, take heed to overcome the provocation and not to respond to it.
22. The apostle’s first point, then, is: Christians should guard against yielding to wrath and impatience, and should remember the great blessings they enjoy — gifts wherewith all the advantages and favors of the world are unworthy of comparison.
23. Similarly, James says regarding the other point: “Wherefore putting away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness,” etc. By “filthiness” he means the impure life of the world — indulgence, voluptuousness and knavery of every sort. These things, he would say, should be far from you Christians who enjoy blessings so great and glorious. Could you rightly recognize and appreciate these blessings, you would regard all worldly pursuits and pleasures mere filth in comparison. Nor is this overdrawn; they are such when contrasted with the good and perfect heavenly gifts and treasures.
24. “Receive with meekness the implanted word.” You have the Word, James says, a Word which is yours not by your own fancy or effort, but which God, by grace, gave to you — implanted in you. It has free course — is preached, read and sung among you. (By the grace of God, it is free among us, too.) In this respect, God be praised, there is no lack. It is of the utmost importance, however, to receive it, to make profitable use of it; to handle it with meekness that we may hold it fast and not allow it to be effaced by anger under persecution or by the allurements of worldly lusts. Christ says (Luke 21:19), “In your patience possess ye your souls [ye shall win your souls].” Meekness and patience are necessary to enable us to triumph over the devil and the world. Without them we shall not be able to hold fast the Word in our strife against those evil forces. We must fight and contend against sin, but if we essay to cool our wrath by grasping the devil and his followers by the hair and wreaking vengeance upon them, we will accomplish nothing and may thereby lose our treasure, the beloved Word. Therefore, lay hold of the Word planted or engrafted within you, that you may be able to retain it and have it bring forth its fruit in yourself.
25. It is a Word, says James in conclusion, “which is able to save your souls.” What more could be desired? You have the Word, the promise of all divine blessings and gifts. It is able to save you if you but steadfastly cleave to it. Why, then, need you take any account of the world, and anything it may do, whether good or evil? What injury can the world render, what help can it offer, so long as you hold the treasure of the Word? Observe that the apostle ascribes to the spoken Word, the preached Gospel, the power to save souls. Similarly, Paul commends it to the Romans (ch. 1:15), in almost the same words, as “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.”
26. Now, the Word is implanted within you in a way to give you the certain comfort and sure hope of your salvation. Be careful, then, not to permit yourselves to be wrested from it by the wrath or the filth of the world. Take heed to accept in purity and to maintain with patience the Word so graciously and richly given you by God without effort or merit on your part. Those who are without the Word, and yet endeavor to attain heaven, what efforts have they made in the past! what efforts are they making today! They might torment themselves to death; they might institute and celebrate every possible service — they would accomplish nothing. Is it not better to cling to the Word and maintain this treasure whereby you attain salvation and divine sonship than to permit the world to wrest you from it through persecution, passion or moral filth the source of its own ruin and perdition?