By John Angell James, 1859


"Remembering, without ceasing, your work of FAITH, and labor of LOVE, and patience of HOPE in our Lord Jesus Christ."—1 Thess. 1:3.

It is somewhat striking, and very interesting, to observe the various combinations of Christian graces which are presented to us in many places by the sacred writers—like so many different precious stones in a bracelet—or so many flowers in a bouquet—or stars in a constellation. Each grace lends its separate beauty to form a resplendent whole. How impressive is that rich chain in 2 Pet. 1:5; or Gal. 5:22; or 1 Cor. 13:13.

In the passage now under consideration, the order is faith, love, hope. This is in more exact accordance with the nature and relations of the Christian's life—hope is mentioned last, because it is the nearest connecting link between this world and that which is to come. These three virtues are each represented, as we have said, by an epithet which is intended to exhibit them in their practical exercise.

We have "the WORK of faith." This does not mean that faith is God's work in the soul. This is true—but it is not the truth here. It must be explained by the analogy of the other two virtues; and as the epithet in connection with them represents their practical operation, so it must be here. "The work of faith," must mean a working faith. Its best explanation will be found in the second chapter of the epistle of James. In some other places, as 1 Cor. 16:13; 1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7, it is represented as a fighting virtue, just as here it is a working one; both implying great exertion. Every representation of this holy principle makes it an active one. Faith cannot be "an idle, passive, inoperative assent to the truths of the gospel"—but a vigorous and impulsive conviction. It is not the state of mind which, perceiving the evidence, reposes upon it without further desire or effort—but that of a man who, believing a report concerning some benefit he may obtain, rouses himself to put forth every effort to secure it. "Show me your faith without your works," exclaims the true believer, "and I will show you my faith by my works." May I illustrate it by a reference to the steam engine? Faith is the steam power in the cylinder, which sets all the machinery in motion.

"The LABOR of love" explains itself. Faith works by love; and love works in all those various ways set forth with such exquisite beauty and elegance in Paul's personification of love. The apostle has used a strong term, in application to love, by calling it the "labor" of love. Love stirs up the whole soul to energetic, vigorous, and persevering action. This operation of love, is, in substance, the same as that which is ascribed to faith, only here it is intensified by a still stronger term; the word "labor" being a more emphatic one than "work." Love is the most powerful impulse to vigorous action that the soul knows. What will not the mother do for her child? The wife for her husband? The lover for the object of his affection? How beautifully the expression, "labor of love" chimes in with all our instincts and our experience. Oh! what an illustration of this have we in the incarnation, life, sufferings, and death of our Lord. There was a labor of love which is a pattern for us, and which will fill the universe with wonder and delight.

But it is "the PATIENCE of hope" to which this section is principally devoted. And is there any characteristic of this grace more obvious than patience? When our hearts are strongly set upon an object, is there any effort too great to make for its possession? Any length of time too long to wait? Any disappointment too severe to endure, as long as one ray of hope remain unextinguished? How often have we been struck with this, in observing the conduct of our fellow-creatures, in reference to some worldly object on which their hearts were entirely set. We have seen them working, waiting, and watching—led on by some 'glimmering light', which to every eye but their own was a meteoric delusion; never relaxing their efforts, nor intermitting their expectations, long after all around them saw that the object they pursued must forever elude their grasp.

A very striking illustration of this was seen in the conduct of the crew of the ill-fated ship which recently sunk—"For thirty-six hours they lived on hope. On Friday noon the leak was made known, and all hands began to bale out the engine-room. They went to work calmly and systematically, hoping to conquer the water there, and thus to regain their steam-power. Until eight o'clock that evening they worked steadily at this one point; regained their steam only to lose it finally. Still all night long the weary men waked with good spirits, in the hope that the morning would bring relief. And when toward morning their strength began to fail, and the water to increase in the hold, hope was renewed by a lull of the gale, and the assurance of an experienced captain that the ship would hold out. Every passenger remained cool, and seemed to forget his danger in the united efforts to save the vessel. There was no weeping or exhibition of despair. All Saturday morning they keep on bailing, though the storm increased and the vessel filled with water. At noon the clouds begin to break; hope revives, and all work like giants. Two hours later a sail appears; then hope bursts into joy. And though night is coming on, the hope of help sustains all hearts. With the calmness and patience that hope alone can impart, they first provide for the weak and the helpless, and though the daylight wanes, they still hope for the returning boat until the fated lurch of the sinking ship leaves five hundred men upon the waves. Yet even then hope does not desert them. Through the darkness of the night, the flashes of lightning reveal to each his struggling comrades; and each cheers his fellow with the hope of rescue from vessels hovering near. At length when one by one, scores and hundreds have gone down forever—a solitary swimmer observes in the dim dawn a vessel a mile away. For six hours he had floated on the sea—but the sight gives courage to his will, and strength to his arms. Almost exhausted he reaches her side, and is drawn on board of her by ropes—saved by hope."

So let it be with us in reference even to the affairs of this world. Are we engaged in some lawful enterprise; some matter of unquestionable obligation; some pursuit, of the lawfulness of which we can no more doubt, than we can of our very existence? Then let us hold on our way amid all difficulties, delays, and disappointments, sustained by the power of hope, and "exhibiting the patience of hope." There may appear but dim lights to cheer even ourselves, and to others nothing but thick darkness, impervious to a single beam—but until the last ray is extinguished in black night, let us never yield to the paralyzing influence of despair. Many have given up the pursuit when within a few steps of gaining their desired object. A little more patience would have put them in possession of all they sought.

And if this be true in reference to temporal things, it is equally true in reference to spiritual matters. Are we struggling in the great work of sanctification—with some besetting sin, some strong corruption, some powerful enemy—and carrying on the conflict amid many sad defeats, many humbling disappointments, many embarrassing relapses—until we are ready to give up all for lost, and despondingly say, "I shall yet perish by the hand of Saul!" Let hope come to our rescue, and patience keep up our hope. We must struggle—it is a life and death conflict. If we give up—we are lost. There is hope! God will assist us. He has promised to make his grace sufficient for us. If defeated ten times—ten times we must return to the conflict.

Recollect the story of Robert Bruce and the spider, how, when frequently defeated, he was reclining in despondency, and saw the little insect, after many abortive attempts to swing herself from one place to another, succeed at last. Patience in this case was victorious. It roused him from his despondency, called up the same spirit of endurance and resolution in him, and he too, was saved by it.

And thus must it also be in the commencement of the great business of eternal salvation. The awakened sinner does not always come at once into the light and liberty of the gospel, or to the full assurance of hope, or faith, or even of understanding. He is like Bunyan's Pilgrim, heavily laden with the burden of his sins, and falls into the Slough of Despond, and, after floundering long in its miry depths, often feels half inclined to get out on the wrong side; and even after escaping from this danger, finds not immediately his way to the cross of Christ. He prays, he reads, he hears; he mortifies his corruptions, and puts away his sins—but he is not at peace, and is ready to give all up in despair. If any such shall read these pages, to him I say—"Do not despond—hope on. You are near the cross look up—there it is! There is the Savior, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. I do not bid you wait. There is no reason why you should not this moment believe and rejoice. But should it be that from any remaining ignorance, any cloud upon your mind, you do not see the glorious object of faith, do not give up the matter—but in the patience of hope struggle against your doubts and fears, your false views and false reasonings, your unbelief and self-righteousness, and come to the Savior who waits to receive you!

And let the timid believer—the feeble and fainting soul, often cast down by reason of the difficulties of the way, and alarmed at his own weakness—keep up his expectation, and his expectation keep up his patience, and his hope and patience keep up his endeavors. It may be "with fear and trembling," but still let him work out his own salvation, depending upon him who works in him to will and to do according to his good pleasure.

To the afflicted believer who may have lost his all, by some sudden reverse of circumstances, we say—when we have been shipwrecked, when the storm rages over us, and we struggle in the deep—if we have only a good hope through grace of a better inheritance, we shall emerge at last, though but one solitary plank of worldly substance be left us. The hour of deliverance will come to all who maintain the patience of hope in Jesus Christ. But this patience must have its perfect work, and must be attended with the work of faith and labor of love.

In connection with this passage, we may take up another—"We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance produces character; and character produces hope." Romans 5:3-4

The connection of Christian graces with each other, and their operation in the way of producing one another, are in this passage beautifully set forth, somewhat resembling the divisions of the stalks of those plants which are jointed, and in which the parts grow one out of another. The apostle states it as a great and blessed privilege of Christians, that they not only rejoice in the hope of glory—but "also rejoice in our SUFFERINGS," not, of course, on their own account—but on account of their influence and effects. Just as we might rejoice in some present privation, toil, suffering, and perplexity—not for their own sakes, for they are all very painful in their nature—but because of some great temporal advantage to be derived from them.

We can easily understand the reality and the reasonableness of rejoicing in present temporary evil, for the sake of future and permanent good. What was the good which made the apostle rejoice in suffering? "Suffering produces PERSEVERANCE." Not of itself does suffering produce endurance, for it tends to produce impatience, fretfulness, and an abandonment of its own cause. This result of "endurance from affliction" is the work of God's grace in the soul, keeping in subjection our natural tendency to repine and rebel. It is a proof of God's power, wisdom, and love to his people, that he places them in those circumstances, in which he will enable them to exercise one of the most difficult of all graces; thus assisting them to glorify him, and secure to themselves a great reward. If there were no suffering, there could be no endurance; and if no endurance, no reward. Yes, this is the only world in which endurance can be exercised. There is no perseverance in heaven—for there is no suffering there. There is no perseverance in hell—for there is no hope there. Hence to be called to suffer, is really an honor—and if we look to the end and outcome, a privilege. The apostle James represents patience as the perfection of the Christian character—"Let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect, and entire, lacking nothing."

"Perseverance produces CHARACTER." The word signifies "trial," or "proof." This is usually understood to mean proof of God's power, faithfulness, and love, in bestowing his grace upon the Christian, according to his gracious promise—for support, consolation and perseverance. And what afflicted Christian who has trusted in God, has not had proof abundant of divine support? What a testimony of God's interposition, can his children bear, who have been enabled patiently to endure and persevere!

Still, this does not appear to be the meaning here. I think the "trial," or "proof," is that of the afflicted Christian's own state. Patience works "proof" of the sincerity, steadfastness, and strength of his faith. Tribulation is the testing-point of godliness; the crucible, the fire of which reveals the nature of the substances cast into it—whether it is gold or dross—or, if mixed, how much there is of each. This is "the fire which is to try every man's work, of what sort it is," 1 Cor. 3:13. To this the apostle refers, 1 Pet. 1:7. "That the trial of your faith, being much precious than of gold which perishes, might be found unto praise, and honor, and glory, at the appearing of Jesus Christ." Tribulation makes, in many cases, sad discoveries of the lack of true faith, and in others it makes revelations no less delightful. Many a believer who feared as he entered 'the cloud of suffering', emerged from it with joy and thanksgiving for the knowledge of his state, which he had gained while passing through it.

"Character produces HOPE." It naturally and necessarily leads to an increase of this grace, not of course by changing or strengthening the foundation—but by showing us that we have really built upon it, and are going on to the possession of its glorious object. Character, in this view of it leads on to assurance. The sufferers who, in the days of persecution, gave up property, liberty, friends, and even life itself, for Christ, could stand in no doubt of the sincerity of their faith, or of their personal interest in the blessings of salvation. Amid their fiery trials, their faith glowed like gold in the crucible, and proclaimed its own existence and nature. So now also, the tried believer who, with deep submission, unmurmuring acquiescence, and holy peace—can patiently bear the will of God—has proof of his personal faith, and may unfeignedly rejoice in hope of the glory of God.