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Hearers and Doers / James 1:19-27

As preached by Timothy O'Day.

True faith manifests itself to obedience to the Word of God.

I) Receive the Word

II) Do not be deceived: Receiving the Word is doing the Word.

III) What hearing the Word looks like: The Word directs our speech, service, and purity.

There is a tension that we can feel as we live the Christian life. Last week we talked about the tension between experiencing trials and saying that God is good. This week James leads us to consider how to reconcile another tension: that of being justified by faith and the call to obey his commands.

Let me model the difficulty with a scenario. Imagine you are sharing the gospel with a young man or young woman and you say to this person, “You are saved not by your works. Salvation is the free gift of God that you cannot earn. Christ has accomplished all that is necessary for you to be saved from God’s wrath and to have eternal life with him. All you must do is believe Jesus—that he is the Son of God who assumed human nature, lived a life of perfect obedience, bore the wrath of God on the cross that you deserve, died, was buried, and rose again. Believe in his name for the forgiveness of your sins and you will be saved!” To this the person responds, “Yes, I want this. I believe.” This is excellent so far, right? But then you find out a few months later that this person is rebelling against God’s command by living with his girlfriend. You tell him. You go to him and tell him, “brother, this is against God’s command and ought not to be done.” He responds by saying, “I thought salvation was by faith alone. Why are you trying to lay demands on me.” You know he is wrong, but you aren’t sure how he is wrong. You go away confused to think about it. Later you find out that this person has started a smear campaign against you, telling all your friends that you are a legalist, liar, and hypocrite. All the while he claims that he is right with God by his faith.

Perhaps your theological nose can sniff that this man isn’t right, but can you explain why he isn’t right? What James 1:19-27 explains to us why. I want us to look at this text to understand why, but before we walk through it let me just summarize the argument of this text: true faith manifests itself in obedience to the word of God. It does not manifest itself in perfection, but it does manifest itself in our direction in that we move toward obedience.

As Martin Luther, the man celebrated for his relentless teaching on salvation by faith alone, once wrote, “Idle faith is not justifying faith.” Similarly, John Calvin, following in the Reformed tradition wrote, “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone: just as it is the heat alone of the sun which warms the earth, and yet in sun it is not alone, because it is constantly conjoined with light.”

How does James 1:19-27 teach us this?

1. Receive the word

Note first who James is addressing: beloved brothers. Those in verse 18 that he spoke of, along with himself, as those who were brought forth by the word of truth. James, then, is speaking to believers. That is a simple point but it is one we cannot miss.

His exhortation to these fellow believers is simple: be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. This is an exhortation steeped in Jewish wisdom literature. Take Proverbs 17:27-28

Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,

and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.

Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise;

when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.

But being quick to speak, slow to listen, and quick to anger is what characterizes sinful humanity. And even those who are new creations are prone to live in the flesh. This is why James gives this exhortation and grounds it in the reality of verse 20:

“For the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

That is to say, living by the passions of the flesh does not produce the righteous life that God desires believers to walk in. James is not speaking of the righteousness of God that is ours by faith in Christ but rather the righteous life that we are to live by faith in Christ. He is not speaking of producing God’s righteousness in ourselves but producing a life that is in accord with the righteous desires of God.

But simply living out our passions and letting sinful anger have its way will not lead us to living a life that accords with God’s desire for us. So what will? That’s what James addresses next

Verse 21 begins with “Therefore,” meaning in effect, “since your innate desires will not lead to living a life that fits with God’s righteous desire for you, live this way instead.” What is that way he directs us to live? He gives two directions

First, “put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness.” Those who are brought forth as a kind of first fruits by the word of truth (18) are to put away sinful practices. Your old way of living, your former practices and manner of life that had no regard for God’s decree should be put away. You strip it off like a coat that is covered in urine. You throw it away like a hat infested with lice. It is filthy and you do not want it anymore. But this putting off is a fight. Killing sin in your life sometimes seems like cutting a head off of the hydra. Every time you cut off one, two more appear.

Second, “receive with meekness the implanted word.” The word that is received is more than, but not less than, the gospel message. It is the same word of truth mentioned in verse 18 that brought us forth as a kind of first fruits. It is the word that brought us to faith in Christ. In coming to faith in Christ, this word is “implanted” in us. That is to say, it is not natural to us but given to us. This implanting is the fulfillment of the promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:33,

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

God promises the New Covenant because man has shown himself as incapable of obeying the word of God. Our problem isn’t so much that we are ignorant of the things of God. Our problem is that we are evil and do not want the things of God. We need to be changed from the inside out and that is what the promise of the New Covenant is. God acts and works in us. He brings us forth by the word of truth (verse 18) by implanting that word in us. That is to say, giving us new desires as we come to faith in Christ when we hear and believe the gospel message.

We enter into this New Covenant and are made new by uniting to Christ by faith. That is to say, when we hear and believe the good news that tells us that while we were sinners, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, assumed humanity, lived a perfect life, died a substitutionary death on the cross, bore the wrath of God that we deserve, died, was buried, and then rose again showing that he had paid the wages of sin, we are made new. His law is written on our hearts and implanted in us. The word that forgives isn’t just spoken over us it is implanted in us and grows.

What James means in verse 21 by “receiving,” then, is not a call for us to believe for the first time the gospel message. Although, if you hear this and you have yet to trust in Christ like I just described, then that is your one application for today: trust in Christ. This call for initial trust is not what James is directly saying here, though. Remember, he is speaking to brothers already. He is addressing those who have submitted to Christ in faith.

“Receive” in this context has more of the idea of “let this implanted word take effect. Let it grow. Let it its roots get deep in you.” That is why you are to receive it with “meekness.” You are fighting sin as a new creation but gently ushering in the implanted word in your life. It is the implanted word, the new heart beating in you, that is able to save you. It is the implanted word, not merely the heard word, that saves you.

This dynamic of fighting off rampant sin and meekly receiving and nurturing the word, can be understood as a garden with a new plant established. This new plant is on pace to grow into a mighty tree. But it is also surrounded by invasive plants that want to crowd it out. So you go out and you hack away at the invasive plants seeking to root them out. But you move with care around the tree that is growing; you are gentle as you get close to it not wanting to destroy it but let the soil receive its deepening roots.

But in receiving the word, we must be aware of a potential dangerous misunderstanding.

2. Do not be deceived: truly receiving the word is doing the word

In verse 22 James wants us to be aware of a vital distinction: those who receive the word do what it says. Those who deceive themselves merely hear the word. Now you must hear the word in order to do it. The warning is not against hearing but against merely hearing. The warning mentioned in verse 22 is that if you are only a hearer and not a doer of the word, then you are deceived about your spiritual state before God. The word is not in fact planted in you. There are so many people who are convinced that they will not face judgment and that God is pleased with them, but they have deceived themselves. To let God’s word hit your ears but not let it direct your heart is to not receive the word at all.

Verses 23-24 explain what is meant by this distinction between being a hearer and a doer as opposed to a hearer only. James tells us that the one who only hears is like a man who looks into a mirror intently, taking note of his face (verse 23). But then he walks away and forgets what he looks like (24). The key idea in this illustration is that of “forgetting.” We should see this as a ridiculous set of events. For example, in the morning when I look at the mirror I do so knowing that it is going to guide me in making changes based on what I see. When I look at myself and I see disheveled hair, dry skin, my beard growing up high on my cheekbones, eye gunk from sleep, and many other grooming issues, the point of looking in the first place is to act on what I see and not merely to take not of it and then walk away and forget it. The point of looking is acting. Instead, the one who only hears walks away and forgets.

The comparison should come easily enough for us. You can read the Bible everyday, listen to preaching for hours at a time, take in good books that explain theology, but if you do so and then walk away without applying and seeking to live out what you heave heard, then it is a pointless and worthless exercise.

Don’t be deceived. This is a ridiculous image, but it is easier to do than you may think. If you hear a sermon and think, “yes, that speaks to me. I should act on that,” but then leave without making plans to act, then you will forget. You hear but do not act. Come next week, that conviction is gone. The epiphany and resolve slides away and you forget it.

Brothers and sisters, God speaks to us so that we will live out what he says. Imagine a military commander sending orders to his troops in the months leading up to his arrival at the military base. In his orders he is dictating how he wants the base run, how it wants it cleaned, how he wants his HQ set up, and how he wants the men spending their time in training. Then he arrives. The base is trashed, there is no system of delegation and order, HQ is not set up, and the men have not yet taken up physical or rifle training. Then the commanding officer asks the soldier in command, “did you receive my orders?” He responds, “Yes, we did . They were amazing orders. We formed study groups and would read them for hours at time. Some of the men even committed entire letters that you sent to memory.” How would he respond to these men who celebrate being hearers only?

When you read Scripture and you are convicted, when a brother or sister corrects you according to the word of God, when you hear a rebuke or exhortation in a sermon and think, “I need that,” then you need to move past simply hearing and ask yourself, “How am I going to write this on my eyelids so I can see it when I blink? How am I going to set aside time so that the Lord can chisel this on my mind? How am I going to obey this immediately?” No more delays. No more walking away and forgetting.

Doing the word and not forgetting it is the point of being given it.

And this brings us to verse 25 which tells us what we are to be like. James does not use the same illustration to describe what we should do but simply states it plainly. He points out three things that mark the one who is a hearer and a doer.

First, he looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty. This is another expression for what James means by “the word.” This perfect law is not a strict reference to the Mosaic law code in the Old Testament. While we read in the Old Testament that the law is perfect (Psalm 19), what James means here is the law as it is fulfilled and elaborated on by Jesus. It is faith in Jesus that brings us into the new birth (18) and it is Jesus who implants the word in us by giving us the Spirit (21). He can do so because he perfectly kept the law and fulfilled the law.

This is why the law can also now be called the “law of liberty.” The law of Moses imprisoned hearers in sin, but the law of Christ sets us free from the curse of sin and from death because Jesus died for us, taking our penalty. And in giving us the Spirit, he writes the law on our hearts—fulfilling the promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31. Now, by the power of the Spirit, our desires are changed and changing. We are enabled to obey. There was a time that we looked at God’s commands and said, “I am condemned.” But in Christ we can now look at the law and say, “I am set free from the curse of the law and now I am instructed and empowered.”

God’s word in Scripture, both the old and New Testaments, is our instruction. We can take it up and know how God wants us to live. And we can look at it as instructions for life and godliness. We do not use his commands to earn our salvation, that is given by faith when the word is implanted in us. Now we can take up the law and say, “this instructs in obedience and obedience is true freedom.”

Second, he perseveres in hearing the word by doing the word. We persevere in hearing the word by doing it. The opposite of persevering is being a hearer who forgets. So one who perseveres is one who keeps hearing—but not only hearing. He keeps hearing, exposing himself to the word, because he is a doer of the word. Staying exposed to the word is closely tied to doing it. Here is what I mean: if you read the Bible but never intend to actually live it out, you will not desire to read the Bible for very long. You will, either consciously or not, wonder what the point of reading it is. We are more logical than we give ourselves credit for being at times. If you don’t feel like there is a point in doing something, then you won’t do it very long. If I make a resolution to go to the gym everyday and then I literally just go to the gym and walk around and then leave without lifting weights or working out, then how long do you think I will keep going to the gym? Not very long because I will discern that it is pointless. But if I go to the gym and I exercise, then suddenly I desire to keep doing it because I feel healthier, my pants fit again, and I gain strength. This experience of benefit is what is meant by the third thing we see in verse 25…

Third, he is blessed in his doing. The blessing spoken of here is more than what you get at the gym. You grow in godliness and communion with God. You are experiencing the truth of the promise in James 1:2-4—God is producing something in you even in the midst of suffering. Have you ever witnessed a suffering saint choosing to trust God in the midst of pain? He is surrounded by sorrow, but he rejoices in the Lord. His circumstances do not change, but he says he is blessed. How? He feels the pleasure of God. He grows in godliness. You cannot see it with your eyes but it is a treasure beyond compare.

But what does this look like in everyday practice? That’s what James turns to in verses 26-27.

3. What hearing and doing looks like (26-27)

Having the word implanted in you, having God write his law on your heart, inevitably changes you. You will not be perfect, but you will be maturing and growing. James points out three areas that this should be seen and he uses the word “religion” to help us understand how we are to see these things. Religion denotes outward service toward God. True religion—that is, true outward expressions of faith in the true God—can be seen in the following ways—but this list is not exhaustive.

First, the word directs our speech: If you know God, you will control your tongue. A bridle is used on a horse to control where it will go and to hold it back. The implanted word manifests itself as a control of your everyday words. This shouldn’t surprise us because Jesus tells us that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Inward transformation of the heart can be discerned by our words. This is not about perfection in our words, but direction and growing control. What James is speaking against is someone who slanders, lies, prevaricates, gossips and when this person encounters Scripture that corrects him, he does not act. Perhaps you feel confronted by this right now. What are you going to do? Have you been participating in gossip? Back biting? Slander? Lying in order to make yourself look better? Course joking?

What will you do about it? Don’t hear this warning and walk away, doing nothing about it and then forgetting it. Confess your sin to God and to anyone else that you have sinned against. Ask for help from a brother or sister to turn from this.

And be warned by Scripture in verse 26, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” You might deceive others. You certainly may deceive yourself. But you won’t deceive God. He knows. He sees. He calls that religion worthless.

Second, the word directs your service: True religion that is undefiled before God, meaning that it is beautiful and pure, includes caring for the vulnerable and helpless. The word “visit" here does not simply mean stop by to see, but visit in order to meet needs. In the ancient world, much like today, widows and orphans fit this category. We have safety nets that help widows and orphans now, but they are still vulnerable. In the ancient world they were even more so. A woman who lost her husband could have no means of income whatsoever. Orphans would be on the streets. The helpless are the hardest to serve because they need so much and they can offer nothing in return. It is easy to forget them because everyone else wants to forget them.

Who fits this category today more than the unborn? The world would have you think that unborn babies aren’t even human. And to help them is costly. It requires pleading with women not to kill their babies. It requires helping women who do not have the means to care for themselves or their babies. It requires adopting babies. But amidst all of this cost, God looks at it and says, “That is beautiful! That is undefiled!” It has a cost and it is hard, but do not forget: there is blessing in this doing that is beyond our understanding. To care like this is to walk in godliness for he is a father to the fatherless and the defender of widows (Psalm 68:5).

Third, the word directing your purity: Outward social action is not all that is undefiled and beautiful before God. “The world” is speaking more of the system of this present age that works to rebel against God than it is of this physical place. As the word takes root in us, we will grow increasingly strange to the world. We will do things they do not understand, keep ourselves form things they love, and order our lives in a way that they will mock. We must live in a way that keeps ourselves from the contagious godlessness that the world seeks to soak us in. If you set your heart on hearing and doing the word, you will look strange. You may even be called evil when you do not live as the world says you should.

A key way you will see this today is in how we use our bodies. Today the human body is said to be a canvas that enables you to express your identity. But God tells us that our bodies are a key way for us to submit to his good and life giving authority. To say “no” to sexual immorality looks strange and oppressive to the world, but when the word is implanted in us we see that it is the path of true life. We must be aware that the world has an agenda to change the way you think about purity. If you are not aware of this, then worldly thinking, and not the word, will take root and grow in you. Like a rain shower, worldly thinking gets on you. So what are you doing to keep yourself unstained? This is going to require you to avoid things. There are things you should not watch and that you should not listen to. Why? Because they stain your mind and heart with worldly thinking and draw you away from Christ.

Remember, You Have the Whole Christ.

But remember, life is not primarily about avoiding but receiving. God does not simply tell you to stay away from. He also provides something greater and more enjoyable than sin: communion with himself. And he is the one who provides all that we need for this communion. He gave his Son to redeem us from the guilt of sin. He also has given us the implanted word to free us from the power of sin. All we need do is receive what he has given.

As we come to the table, we have an opportunity to act out our receiving. We take in our hand the bread and the cup and then we do something: we eat. We let his gift come into us and have its effect. As you are trusting in Christ this morning, let us together show our desire to not merely be hearers but also doers by taking in and enjoying the Lord’s Supper together.


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